A Conversation with Julie Kent, Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet
The renowned ballerina grew up in the Bethesda area
Were you conscious of how rare it has been for a woman to run a ballet company?
A lot of these companies were founded by women. American Ballet Theatre was founded by Lucia Chase, Mary Day founded The Washington Ballet. There was no ballet before [legendary ballet dancer and teacher] Ms. [Lisa] Gardiner, and Mary Day decided to bring it here and build it from the ground up. Same with Lucia Chase. It was one woman’s vision to bring ballet not as a vehicle for one single choreographer, but as a contribution to our American arts landscape and for the dancers of this country to have things to dance.
What gave you pause about running the ballet? And what brought you around to taking the helm?
I always thought a leader is someone who wants to be in charge, to tell everyone else what to do. In ballet, it’s the one who knows everyone’s steps, and that’s not me at all. I know my steps, but I’m not making sure you do yours, too. What I’ve learned in the last year is that those are micromanaging skills, not necessarily leadership skills.
What I have come to realize is that the leader is someone who inspires everyone else around them to bring everything they have to their roles and to make sure that the individuals understand that their efforts are worthwhile, are noble, are making a difference, are supported. And inspiring them to think outside the box, dig deeper, figure out ways to find more resources and use existing resources.
If you say, ‘Julie, I want you to be in charge or oversee something,’ I’d just as soon not do that. But if you say, ‘Julie, I want you to change the landscape of The Washington Ballet,’ that’s an emotional connection. I can then channel all my skills. It’s connecting women to the idea of leadership in a different way—if they approach it as a task with an emotional drive as opposed to an egocentric drive or a micromanaging drive. We don’t need more leaders that just want to tell everyone what to do and how to do it—‘I’ll do your job and your job and your job.’ We need people to inspire people to do their jobs even better than they thought they could because we are helping them connect dots. You can help your staff and faculty in an institution and go to a new level.
What does that inspiration look like?
It is the artist’s pursuit, which is one of the things I love and miss so much about being a dancer, but I am applying it in my life outside the studio. You start every day in first position and you do your pliés and tendus, and you are building on what you accomplished the day before, the week before, the hour before, the season before, the performance before, in an effort to bring more beauty, clarity, speed, musicality, power, you fill in the blank. And it’s not because what you accomplished the day before, the week before, the hour before, the show before, the performance before wasn’t good enough. It’s because the whole point is that you are pursuing something. The pursuit never ends. When you have arrived, it’s over.
And how do you do that? Each day taking a step. Some days baby steps, some days giant leaps, some days it’s just the idea of moving forward even if your feet can’t move. It’s building towards your goal.
A practical question: How do you grow the ballet?
I think it will manifest in many ways, and hopefully in an organic fashion. When you have a larger company, you can dance a larger repertoire. That larger repertoire mandates you perform in larger venues. That’s why we are in the [Kennedy Center] Opera House Memorial Day weekend , because the production we are doing mandated a larger venue. To do justice to the work—it is Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and a world premiere we will announce in the coming weeks—you need a larger house.
Will you tour?
Yes. There is a balance in price tag. In order to tour successfully, you have to have a product to tour successfully. You have to put together a program that you dance beautifully, is appealing and will be a reflection and a statement: This is The Washington Ballet, this is how we dance, and it is at this level.
We also have a school with a 75-year reputation. [Part of my goal is] developing the presence nationally and internationally of our school—as far as summer programs abroad and making Washington Ballet the place that young dancers know that they can come and train and be developed and encouraged and positioned for a successful life, whether it’s in dance or in other artistic endeavors or in boardrooms, embassies, businesses, finance, medicine. The discipline, the love, the effort, the time investment, the care, the desire to succeed and all those things you learn and are part of your mantra as a dancer, you can apply to another pursuit.
How do you integrate the ballet with the rest of the city?
Something very core to our mission is digging deeper roots in our D.C. community and allowing arts education be a part of all education. That’s why our program at THEARC [the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus in the District’s Anacostia neighborhood] is so crucial. It’s not leaving behind anyone—it’s extending in two directions, and everyone can feel a part and invested in the whole spectrum of what this company represents.
Jumping to the change in repertoire. Tell me how you’re choosing your pieces.
Where I’m picking repertoire speaks to the beginning of the pursuit. You have to have the foundation of understanding. The dancer has to understand that if we want to perform Sir
Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, you have to know how to dance Ashton. So you dance first his masterworks: The Dream. I want to bring in Symphonic Variations, which Ashton considered his finest piece. These small ballets teach the dancer, and teach the audience, and give a clear indication of where you want to go. You start this mission of connecting dots. You take the audience and the dancers on a journey and you help them understand why is this a masterwork. So you are building something. It’s connective tissue in all our arts. In this city we have excellence across the board in all our arts and music, and dance should be right in there.