For Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, her past career as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre is never far from her in the sense of what motivates her, how she works or what she does.
“For me,” she said, speaking at Georgetown Media Group’s 17th Cultural Leadership Breakfast Dec. 8, before a packed and attentive audience at the George Town Club, “’as a person, as a mother, as an artist, it’s always a question of who I am, who I’ve been and who I want to be.
“In everything I’ve done, it’s always seemed like I’m telling a story without words, with a beginning, a middle and a conclusion.”
Kent’s life has been well chronicled in many pages of words with dazzling photographs: as ingénue dancer, as a major ballet star in the blinding media venue of New York City, as a wife, as the mother of two young children. Her exceptionally long and successful career onstage ended when she retired in June of 2015 after a spectacular farewell performance as Juliet.
“Here we are,” she said, “at the beginning of something new.”
She talked a little about how difficult it was for a dancer ending her performing career. “It’s like leaving my youth behind,” she said, “but then you think about the next part of your career and life.
“What’s interesting is that in everything you do in dance, it’s about trying to achieve perfection, which, of course you never do,” she said. “But it’s about process and the pursuit, not the destination.”
In person, she’s impossible to mistake for anything but an artist, as well as the dancer she remains in body and spirit, with a palpable intensity underpinned by thoughtfulness and intelligence. She is still telling stories — about ballet, about the future and the past, about the pursuit of excellence. She lays out her hope and ambition for expanding the company, taking it to the next level, building on the achievements of Mary Day, who founded the Washington Ballet in 1976, and Septime Webre, her predecessor as artistic director.
Even in retirement, she had been happy in New York working at ABT as artistic director of the company’s summer intensive program. She came to D.C. for two profound reasons: “There was the opportunity I could perhaps change and enhance the cultural leadership and climate in the nation’s capital — which is not a small thing, nor is it easy — and I could build from a well-established base and foundation, and help create excellence as a natural progression from what was already there.”
She wants “to do things correctly, and with integrity.” For Kent, that means the presentation of classic works by choreographers like Tudor and Ashton and Balanchine and more recent works by Ratmansky, Tharp, Kylián, Peck and Forsythe. And, next, “Giselle” March 1 through 5.
“Classic works set standards,” she said. “How do you know if you’re good if you don’t measure yourself against anything by doing classic works as a dancer or a company. You can’t just do new works, or all classics. You should have both. We have to look at the big picture. It’s about building.”
“The classics are classics for a reason,” she said. “They’re timeless.”
She was asked about a perceived notion about women in leadership in ballet, or that women might not be appreciated. She smiled at the thought of “women not appreciated in dance. It’s all about women and appreciation.”
Her first commission, a world premiere, will take place over Memorial Day weekend at the Kennedy Center, inspired by the John F. Kennedy Centennial Celebration. The choreographer is her longtime ABT colleague, dancer Ethan Stiefel. “He had just gone on a 9,000-mile motorcycle journey through parts of America, and I assume he had some time to think,” she said.
It was decided that the work, now called “Frontier,” with music by Adam Crystal, would focus on space exploration, also referencing JFK’s vision of a New Frontier, as expressed in his 1960 acceptance speech: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.”
We heard the word “integrity” a number of times during the course of the morning. It floated into talk about leadership, about the work and the process, about technical positions in ballet. “Dancing,” she said, “is about focus, about the body, about how to use the body, the fingers, eyes. And it’s about daily commitment. Some things are basic in terms of training and work and don’t change.”
Part of the job of being artistic director of the Washington Ballet is preaching the gospel of ballet, about being not only an ambassador for the Washington Ballet, but ballet itself. On this morning, it’s fair to say that she presented her credentials beautifully, and accomplished her mission.