A Woman with Purpose: Julie Kent

A Woman with Purpose: Julie Kent

How do you follow up a career as one of the most celebrated ballet dancers in the world? Become the artistic director of a major metropolitan ballet company.

That was the career path Julie Kent followed in recent years, from retiring as a celebrated Principal Dancer in one of the greatest dance companies in the world, the American Ballet Theatre, in 2015 to becoming Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet in 2016.

Over 30 years, Kent danced with the ABT, has been the longest-serving ballerina in American Ballet Theatre's 79-year history, and always stood out in the star-studded company through her combination of athleticism and gracefulness. But even before then, Kent catapulted to fame at the age of 18, starring in the 1987 Hollywood film "Dancers" with Mikhail Baryshnikov.  

Julie is the perfect example of an Akris Women with Purpose, whose steadfast commitment to the development of artists, rising choreographers, and the creation of arts education initiatives at the Washington Ballet showcases her dedication to creativity, expression, and propelling ballet forward into the 21st century. 

As the Artist Director of The Washington Ballet, how do you keep the ballet modern?

While it is true that ballet is a form of dance developed hundreds of years ago, dancers are products of their own time. Presenting the full spectrum of ballet from 19th & 20th century favorites, as well as providing opportunities to develop new creative voices of the 21st century is key in satisfying the appetites for "modern" artists and audiences alike.

You retired as the principal dancer from the American Ballet Theatre in 2015. Was it hard for you to leave the performing career?

Martha Graham famously said that "a dancer dies twice - once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful."
My own experience leaving my life as a dancer was exquisitely beautiful and equally painful. My performing career was a reflection of the success of an entire community. I shared three decades of treasured memories with fellow artists, professionals, and patrons, and I had the opportunity to leave a lasting impact on many I have never even met. There is nothing more an artist can ask for. Now, my work as Artistic Director is deeply fulfilling, having the opportunity to share and develop a passion for dance among a new generation of artists and audiences.

Which heroine of the ballet is the closest to you in nature? Have there been any roles in your repertoire that somehow influenced you?

All the heroines in the ballets I danced felt close to me, like my sisters or versions of myself. For 23 years, I danced Giselle and Juliet (of Sir Kenneth Macmillan's production of "Romeo & Juliet"). I hold them both very close to my heart. Dancing the role of Marguerite Gautier in John Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias" remains a highlight of my career. And bringing to life Natalya Petrovna in Ashton's "A Month in the Country" (based on a play by Ivan Turgenev) was a privilege that allowed me to draw on my identities as a woman, wife, mother, and artist. They were both transformative experiences.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

The best career advice I received was to embrace the pursuit of improvement. Perfection is unattainable, but improvement is possible in large and small ways every day.

When you reflect on your dancing career, how would you describe it? What are your most cherished memories?

My career as a dancer was nothing short of a fairytale. But in the end, it was the people with whom I shared so many remarkable experiences that I will forever cherish.

Is there a quote or life motto that you try to live by?

- Keep Moving Forward.
- Be generous and recognize generosity in others.
- Nothing great is achieved without enthusiasm. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- Beauty can save the world.

What inspires you in your job as artistic director? What gives you the most satisfaction?

In February, when I exited the stage door of the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center after a performance of The Washington Ballet's "Swan Lake", a young professional approached me and, with great excitement, exclaimed: "That was my first ballet! And it changed my life!"

There is no greater inspiration than knowing your work has the potential to change lives, change perceptions, and change people. I am inspired on a daily basis by those who dedicate their time and efforts to an art form that strives to change the world. And being a part of the growth and development of a new generation of dancers; sharing my knowledge, experience, and history so that it may leave a positive impact is deeply fulfilling.

What do you think is unique about The Washington Ballet?

The Washington Ballet's deep belief in the power of dance to positively affect our entire community is a founding principle for our organization. Our students and professional artists come from cities across this country and the world to pursue a dance career in our Nation's Capital. Our globalism and diversity of cultures and experiences bring exciting depth, artistic sensitivity, and palpable energy to our organization that have become our signature.

Akris is known for its collaborations with John Neumeier on ballet costumes. In your opinion, what should be the purpose of costumes, and how modern can they be?

John Neumeier is an artistic genius of our time. How lucky I am to have worked with him so closely.
Whether in dance, architecture, or fashion, design is an integral component. Costumes can provide a sense of time or timelessness; offer a character qualities or anonymity; amplify movement, or limit it. They are the silent partner for every dancer.

What next projects are you working on?

The Washington Ballet presents the timeless favorite "Romantic-Era" ballet, "Giselle", from April 28 - May 1 at the Warner Theater.
We conclude our 21/22 season at the Harman Center with a program of world premieres by Jessica Lang, Mthuthuzeli November, and Brett Ishida. Three choreographers whose diversity of movement languages provide an exciting opportunity for our artists and allow our audiences to experience the thrill of new work.

What does being a woman with purpose mean to you?

I have lived my entire life with the singular purpose of bringing beauty and humanity to the world through my work as a dancer and now as an artistic leader. Purpose is a defining, inspiring, and admirable character quality, and I am honored to be recognized by Akris in this way.

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