A Conversation with Julie Kent, Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet
The renowned ballerina grew up in the Bethesda area
Photo by Skip Brown
Name: Julie Kent
What she does: Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet
Grew up in: Potomac
Julie Kent sits in a swivel chair in The Washington Ballet’s finance office, layers upon layers of beads and baubles encircling her wrists and draped from her neck to her torso. Even casual, she projects elegance. She smiles apologetically as the sound of hammers and reformation overtakes the next room, her future office.
Once the bedroom of Mary Day, the founder of The Washington Ballet, the space under construction served as the office of Artistic Director Septime Webre for 15 years. The transformation is for Kent; the renowned ballerina was named artistic director of The Washington Ballet in March and officially walked through the Wisconsin Avenue doors this summer. It is her first new work home in more than 30 years. Kent joined the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City at age 16 and never looked back. She retired from performing last year, at 46, still at the height of a career that placed her among a handful of ballet greats of the last century.
Daunting as the shift may be, Kent’s move is a homecoming. Born in Bethesda, Kent grew up in Potomac and attended Winston Churchill High School. Her career began at the Maryland Youth Ballet (MYB), where she studied under Hortensia Fonseca, the Costa Rican-born ballerina who founded the ballet school in 1971. When Kent was training there, MYB was located in Bethesda—it moved to Silver Spring in 2007—and Kent’s mother, Jennifer Cox, was both a teacher and administrator at the school. Kent’s mother, brother and sister still live in Montgomery County. (Kent was born Julie Cox; “Kent” was a nom de stage chosen by Mikhail Baryshnikov.)
Now, Kent is stepping from stage to wings, radically shifting the repertoire of The Washington Ballet, bringing on more dancers and promising to alter the experience of both performing and observing ballet in the Washington region. She also hopes to continue—and deepen—the company’s commitment to bring ballet into every community. Her husband, Victor Barbee, will serve next to her as associate artistic director, reprising the role he played at ABT. (He, too, had a storied dance career on stage.)
On the August afternoon we meet, Kent is leading the first rehearsal of Giselle, which the company will perform in early March. To watch her direct the dancers is a marvel. She feels each step in her own person, performs each moment in shadow, recalls which lifts she loved most; she is as much in body as in mind. Her corrections on principal dancer Maki Onuki are both immensely subtle and immediately fruitful. Kent advises opening her chest wider, bringing her hands closer together, lengthening an arm here, stretching a leg higher there. Slowly you watch her magic being passed on, playing out on other bodies.
Kent is not the first to make the transition from performance to administration, but she is in the vanguard of a handful of newly minted women leaders in the notoriously male dominated world of ballet administration. Bethesda Magazine spoke with her about coming home.
You were born at Bethesda Naval Hospital, right?
Yes. My father was in the military for about 30 years, and he is actually at rest at Arlington National Cemetery, as is my father-in-law. The majority of his tenure, he was a radiation safety officer, a nuclear physicist whose specialty was nuclear safety. He was [among the] first on the scene in the Three Mile Island crisis in the 1970s.
He met my mother when he was stationed in Antarctica for a year. He wintered over on the ice when they were determining if they could build nuclear reactors on the South Pole, but it didn’t work—it was too cold. Everything froze.
My mother was a dancer in New Zealand and wanted to pursue a professional career in Sydney, Australia, and fell in love with beaches more than ballet, and she abandoned her hopes for a ballet career and became a flight attendant. She was deadheading back to Christchurch [New Zealand], and my father was [on that same flight] on his way to Christchurch. He fell in love with her immediately. They were engaged three days later and married a year later. [They moved back to the States] and eventually were stationed in Rockville/Bethesda, and that’s where I was born.
How old were you when you started dancing?
I don’t have any memories of my life before ballet. When I was born, my mother asked my neighbor about ballet and where there were great adult classes. I sat and colored and watched the ladies [dance at MYB].
When I got to be 7 years old, Ms. Fonseca checked my feet and then gave me approval to begin lessons, and I was in MYB until I auditioned for Baryshnikov and went to New York and started my career.
Tell me about your mom’s connections to MYB.
My mom taught for about 30 years the pre-ballet program there for ages 5 to 8; she also established the Music and Motion program [in 2004]. My niece, Mary, has cerebral palsy. My sister and I studied ballet, and my mom wanted the same opportunities for her granddaughter, so she founded that program along with Mary’s physical therapist, Becky Leonard, so that’s been a huge contribution to this community.
Maryland Youth Ballet is an arm on this tree [indicates around her]. Ms. Fonseca was a pupil of Ms. Day, and they encouraged her to open a studio in what was then the small town of Bethesda, which was not the cosmopolitan area that it is now.
I read you were first on The Kennedy Center stage at age 9, performing alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride in Coppélia.
I was. [Choreographer George] Balanchine was still alive, and it was a huge memory in my life—really inspiring and just so beautiful and exciting. The postures were so beautiful, and the lights onstage were so brilliant. It was such an exciting, glamorous atmosphere.
What was your first thought when The Washington Ballet board approached you for your new position?
Well, my first answer was, ‘No.’ I was really not looking. I had just made a major transition in my life, leaving the stage. Over the course of the year when I knew it was my final season at ABT and I had no idea what the future was going to be, people would say, ‘This is going to be fine.’ But I am not just a ballerina; I’m also a wife and a mother of two children, and I have a ship that needs to continue sailing.
All the back-patting was reassuring, but there was still a huge unknown in my life that I was very uncomfortable with, because I had never had an unknown in my life. I always knew what I loved, and I always knew what my pursuit was—I had had a paycheck and a purpose and a passion and a drive since I can remember. So I wrote a list of my post-performing career goals. At the top of my list was that I wanted to share my voice as an American artist, a woman, a mother, a ballerina. I wanted to help develop the next generation of dancers—be a reassuring voice that the process and the product and the work really speaks for itself in a time when image is everything. Social media and just the landscape of the world today is very much based on being a star—it’s not what you do, it’s what you look like you do. I can’t paint a different landscape, but I can help dancers say that the real part is what you do every day in the studio.
Those were my goals. And I landed a wonderful job at ABT that was a surprise. They asked me to be artistic director of their Summer Intensive. It’s almost 1,500 students in five locations across the country, a national program and a 23-city audition tour, plus a first-ever European audition. So when I was approached about The Washington Ballet, I said, ‘No! I just made this transition. My ship is sailing, my kids love their life, they love their schools.’ The idea of change after just being through a huge change was really scary to me.
[But] I didn’t want to be the person that let an opportunity go because I was either afraid of change or apprehensive about what it meant. If my children came to me in 30 years and said, ‘Mom, I’m happy with what I’m doing, it’s comfortable, but I got this great opportunity,’ I’d say, ‘Go for it!’ I can’t not take my own advice.
[I came to] the realization that as an artistic director, I would have the largest platform to fulfill my post-performing career goals, to speak my voice as a woman, a mother, an artist, a ballerina, to grow the next generation through our school, through our company, to build something. We have had the 40th anniversary of the company, 75th of the school. There is still plenty of sky, but with solid roots.