The Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director Julie Kent kicked off the Tuesday Talks Speaker Series on January 15 with a warm and personable talk to a standing-room-only audience in the Cleveland Park Library.
Ms. Kent delighted the audience with her no-notes talk, sharing stories from her early days in professional dance through to her present work guiding the repertoire and direction of the Washington Ballet. She grew up in Bethesda and began her dance training at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet before graduating high school at the age of 16 to join the School of American Ballet. She is the longest-serving ballerina in American Ballet’s 75-year history, with which she enjoyed a full career until her retirement in 2015.
Kent dispelled the myth of the cutthroat atmosphere of professional dance, describing the nurturing environment and great opportunities she enjoyed throughout her career. She danced in more than 100 ballets and took on all the major classical roles, and also appeared in two movies featuring ballet, including one with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
While concerned about uprooting her family to move back to Washington and take on her role with The Washington Ballet, Kent recalled advice from mentors to take on challenges in life and was eager to nurture the next generation of ballerinas. She also described her eagerness to have a broader and continued impact on her art form.
“I absolutely love seeing the dancers blossom,” she explained with a smile, in discussing the teaching and mentoring she finds immensely rewarding. Even though she jokes, “I had no life outside of the dance studio” in describing her own youth, she encouraged a young dancer in the audience to make time both for her friends and for dance, much in the way she encourages all of her students to take in all that life has to offer.
The Washington Ballet faces numerous challenges, from fundraising to finding performance sites for a company that has no dedicated stage. “That is particularly challenging when trying to schedule a season,” she explained, and requires juggling artistic decisions with logistics. Kent is focusing on bringing both classical ballets as well as new commissions by talented choreographers to the Ballet’s season.
Another challenge Kent worries about: people staying at home more, “glued to their screens, rather than subscribing to a season and coming out to watch performances in person.” This is creating fundraising challenges for all performing arts organizations, and, Kent fears, threatening the long-term livelihood of artists and many art forms.
What came through most, throughout Kent’s talk, is her lifetime commitment to both the world of dance and to being a mother to her two children. As one attendee said, “she is clearly a strong and focused woman who thinks deeply about her conflicting roles and how to balance the needs of both, while carving out a personal life and career that is successful and rewarding.”
A stellar kick-off to the Tuesday Talks series, Ms. Kent presented an image of a woman both professionally driven and personally committed to her family. Congratulations to her on achieving success with both while creating a lasting connection to her audiences.