Julie Kent’s office walls are a peek inside her past. They’re covered with the teachers she loved, the dancers who inspired her and the roles she adored. It’s a greek chorus of lovely black and white faces. When I ask her about her inspiration, as at the director of The Washington Ballet and as a dancer, she throws a hand up in the air and gestures to all of them in one fell swoop.
“All these people you see on the wall, that’s why they’re all here.”
While the past is all around her (literally), she’s focused on the future. Her company is gearing up for the first show of the season, TWB Welcomes, which is composed of two different ballets. The first is called Exquisite and Exotic and the second is Ethereal and Evocative. Both serve as a sort of ballet mixtape, involving selections from Swan Lake as well as dances from more modern choreographers like Michel Fokine. Despite the looming curtain call, Kent is completely serene when we sit down to chat about life at The Washington Ballet, but she’s also intensely passionate as we cover everything from ballet in pop culture, to sexism in the workplace.
But nothing moves her more than talking about her art. Kent has a singular vision for the future of her company, which includes changing the way Washingtonian’s see the ballet.
“People go to The Nutcracker, or Swan Lake and they think, oh that’s what ballet is,” she says. “Those are two ballets from the 19th century that people love, and will always love, but ballet is such a broad art form that offers a full range of experiences.”
Kent wants people to think of The Washington Ballet the way they think of the Caps or the National Gallery of Art. When there’s a new game, we go. When there’s a new exhibition, we go. We don’t think about it, we just do.
“What I want is the kind of trust from our community, just to go and trust that whatever we put on should be something they should see. It will add to their life,” she explains.
Julie Kent knows this for a fact. She’s built her life around it.
What was your first job?
My first job was as a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. I danced as a supernumerary at the Kennedy Center and the New York City Ballet, but that wasn’t a real job. This was a real job, union job.
How did it feel to start your first new job? Get a real paycheck? Have real benefits?
You know… I didn’t really think that much about it. It was more that I was so excited to start my career as a dancer, work with Baryshnikov and learn from all the incredible dancers, artists, teachers and coaches. It was more about the experience rather than the benefits. It’s a bit of an old fashioned mentality that I would love to see more of in the youth today.
You’re the director of The Washington Ballet now, what’s a regular day like for you?
I’m a working mother and I have two children. One’s in high school and one’s in middle school. So I get the kids to school, get them up, make them breakfast, get their stuff together, feed the dog and then get to work. I teach class twice a week from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., otherwise we have meetings in the morning.
My day isn’t the same everyday, there’s quite a lot of variety. I’m coaching in the studio often and there’s a lot of emails and communications, both internally and externally. A lot of development, as far as developing interest and support from outside the institution for our pursuits here. In a word, fundraising. But it’s developing relationships, developing interest, developing a platform for the company to succeed.
It’s a lot of planning and scheduling, not just day to day rehearsals, but long term planning. A lot of casting, coaching. It’s very comprehensive.
Are either of your children interested in creative fields?
Yeah, they both are. My son studied ballet for a couple of years. He abandoned his ballet studies, but he’s always in the theater productions. He plays the piano and sings. He’s also on the football team. Josephine takes ballet. It’s not surprising. They’ve been in ballet studios all their lives.
I think it’s the exposure and the experience. Their mom is a ballerina and their father was a principal dancer and a director. They’ve seen us on stage and in tutus, in the studio and dressing rooms with all the lovely people that are so warm and friendly. Everything about our work is intertwined with their life. It’s such a loving, nurturing, exciting, giant, dramatic and dynamic environment. I think they’re very much at home here.
But the rest of my family are all scientists, engineers, physicists and mathematicians. So there’s the whole spectrum.
What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
Seeing the dancers evolve, develop and grow right in front of your eyes is the greatest satisfaction. Imagining a program and seeing it realized at a level beyond what I expected is the greatest. Seeing people discover that ballet is something they didn’t think it was, or didn’t know it was… [watching] your art change and transform somebody’s life or add to their human experience. That’s a big thing.
So it still really lies in the teaching for you?
Yeah, it’s in the art itself. The realization of the art is the greatest pleasure. The rest of the stuff is like anything else, it needs to be done and someone has got to do it.
Obviously you danced for a very long time, that’s an understatement, and you’ve been in this position for two years, what surprised you about being on the other side of a ballet company?
I’ve had a very clear idea of what the other side of running a ballet company is because my husband was the associate artistic director of ABT for a really long time, before he came here. I heard and saw for myself just how challenging it is. Every company has its own unique things that keep you up at night and big challenges.
I guess the surprise, in a good way, was that the dancers really adopted the focus on classical art. They embraced it so swiftly. That was a welcome surprise. The not-so-welcome surprise was the sense that The Washington Ballet is not such a priority in this community, in the way that San Francisco adores their ballet and Boston adores their ballet company and Houston owns their ballet. In this city, I’m really looking forward to the day when The Washington Ballet is the great pride of the city. Like the Caps, Nats and the Wizards… And the National Gallery and other great institutions.
That our performances are a priority, and it doesn’t matter what particular program we’re doing, you just go and get a ticket. The Washington Ballet is performing, there’s only seven shows, go get your ticket and know that it will be great and it will enhance your life. You can be proud of that as part of the artistic landscape of your city. Those things don’t happen unless people care about them and they want them to be. I’m still waiting for it.
You grew up in the area, right? Was it like that when you were living here, did The Washington Ballet have that, “D.C. doesn’t really care about it,” reputation?
First of all, it was a really long time ago when I lived here. It was 1985 when I moved. At that point, The Washington Ballet was a professional company for only 10 years. It was a different kind of environment. It’s like anything, you can’t look at something that happened 40 years ago with today’s lenses. The landscape at that time, when I was a kid, it wasn’t that The Washington Ballet was aspiring to be an institution of national and international recognition. Mary Day really founded the company to give opportunities to Choo San Goh and different choreographers.
It had a different mission?
Not necessarily mission, but a different vision about how to realize that. The overarching mission is to present the art to the community in the best possible way. How you realize that, you can do that different ways.
D.C.’s a different city now and I think it really does aspire to be not just a government town. It’s the nation’s capital for goodness sakes. Raise the ceiling! [Kent throws her hands in the air.]
After the election, a lot of culture creators in D.C. were worried about how Trump would change the city. Were you nervous?
Basically, Trump and I arrived at the same time. I didn’t have any idea of what it was like before versus what it was like after. The reality is that the federal government doesn’t support the arts under any administration. The amount that the National Endowment for the Arts provides even the biggest ballet companies in this country is a drop in the bucket. It’s not influenced by who’s in the White House.
But again, I just arrived two years ago. I don’t have a lot to compare, but when you look at companies in other countries, where 40-50% of their budget is given by the government, you’re talking about millions. If a ballet company has a $50 million budget you’re looking at $25 million coming from the government as opposed to $50,000.
You just won an industry award for teaching. What are you doing right?
I think there a few key factors that make a great teacher regardless of what they’re teaching. One of them is that you have to love the subject that you’re teaching and surprisingly, that’s not always the case. Then you have to be willing to make the experience about the student and not about you. You have to try to understand, with each individual, how you can inspire them to want to be better at what they’re trying to do.
You don’t want to just say, “Work harder.” You want to create an environment where they want to work, whether it’s for you or because you see something in them that they don’t see in themselves. So they develop a trust.
Those are key traits of the best of the teachers I’ve had the great fortune of being mentored by. They were all extremely different, but they all loved ballet and they all inspired in me this desire to work really hard for them. As a result, that fueled their interest in me and their love for me. When you have a great teacher that’s really invested in your life, it’s a really strong relationship and there’s a lot of love in it. You’re exchanging something that you care a great deal about. There’s a human aspect to being a really great teacher.
What’s harder, directing or dancing?
Directing. You’re responsible for many peoples lives. You’re responsible for a whole institution. As a dancer, you’re responsible for yourself. I mean, being a ballerina is one of the most self absorbed professions in the world.
That’s a fun tag line.
Well it is! It doesn’t mean it’s bad, but being a dancer, it’s like being an olympic athlete. Or any elite athlete. You wake up in the morning and your whole day is, “How are you feeling? What should you eat?” Because you need to give your body the right fuel. “How are you going to get through your day? What are you going to eat after that? Hmmm… I have rehearsal and then I don’t want to be too full.” It’s that kind of minutiae throughout your whole day. This is just your body, then there’s your equipment, “What are you going to wear?” It’s an unbelievably micro-focused life style. It’s your work and your profession. How you get from where you start every morning to the end of your day, repeat, repeat, repeat with your goal being your performance when the curtain comes up. Curtain comes down and you start over again.
But that’s what it has to be. It’s not criticism or a celebration. It’s the reality. Anyone who has ever achieved that high level, you don’t achieve that unless you have the willingness, the devotion, the discipline, the focus, the sacrifice and the love of what you do. You can’t do all that for years and not love and embrace it, and love the people who are with you, who are doing it too. That’s what makes being at a ballet company a really unique and beautiful experience. You’re all in it together.
Being a director, it’s all about everybody else. All the time.
You were in two movies, how do you feel about the way ballet is portrayed in fiction?
You know… I just described the devotion, the discipline and the focus, but people turn that into this weird obsession with perfectionism, and it’s not that at all. But that makes a better movie. The reality is actually kind of boring. It’s a lot of getting up in the morning and repeat and go to bed and repeat.
There’s a lot of theatricality involved, obviously, and they’re performers so you’re dealing with a lot of sensitive people. A lot of young people. A lot of people who are really self absorbed, but they have to be, very hyper focused and very beautiful. They’re all gorgeous, so it’s a lot.
That’s why a lot of ballet documentaries are… boring, because it’s just a lot of hard work all the time. The movies are more compelling because it’s dramatized. They take something a run with it. But that’s okay. It does bother me at times, but at least people are talking about ballet. The reality is really much more about the art form.
You’ve brought a few different dancers into the company. What do you look for in a dancer?
I look for a lot of things. If I’m considering bringing a dancer into the company I look at how they will look within the company. I don’t ever hire anyone in a vacuum. It’s like, does this puzzle piece fit here or not? That’s what I tell the dancers that come to audition. It’s not that you’re not a great puzzle piece, it’s whether or not your piece fits in my puzzle right now.
There’s no shortage of talent, but there’s a shortage of contracts and it’s all about trying to position your company for success. It’s not something specific, obviously you want people who have the same shared aspirations. We have big aspirations. We have aspirations for excellence. The only way you get there is if everybody is on board with that idea. I always talk a lot about our broader goals for the institution, to make sure the dancer finds that inspiring and interesting and wants to be apart of it.
Do you think ballet has become more or less popular in the last couple of years?
I don’t know, I think it’s probably status quo. I think Misty Copeland is one of the few dancers who has crossed over into popular culture. She’s not just in ballet culture.
Do you have more people who come to the ballet and want to be dancers here?
There are so many little girls and boys who want to study ballet. The enrollment is always growing. It’s how that transfers into supporting a professional company that is different. How do you connect that interest as a child into a life long love? Even if you don’t do it, you just want to support it, be a part of it and watch it.
That’s something in the greater ballet community, we could be much better at. For a lot of young dancers there’s some major disappointment associated at age 12 – 13, that they didn’t become a ballerina. You don’t take piano lessons and think you’re going to be a concert pianist, you don’t do little league and think you’re going to be Derek Jeter, but for some reason a lot of young dancers think that because they’re going to take ballet classes, they’re going to be a star in The Nutcracker. My hope is that here at The Washington Ballet we can continue to cultivate the interest with a broader perspective about what’s happening here.
It doesn’t have to be your life’s work, but you can still have that broader interest in attending ballet. I think that’s something we can do better, developing that in our young students and nurturing that along. It takes time.
I have a question that might be based on incorrect notions, so feel free to let me know if I’m off base, but I read a profile of you that mentioned you’re one of the few female ballet directors. Is that actually the case? Do you think ballet has the sexism problems we’re seeing in a lot of creative industries including the food industry, movie industry, etc?
If you looked at the data and compiled how many ballet companies above x budget are directed by women, of course there’s not going to be the same amount. Why? I think the why is an important question and the answer is not always, in my opinion, because they were discriminated against. The answers are much more complicated than that and I think we do a disservice to the question when we automatically assume that it’s a man / woman issue. It’s much more layered and complicated than that.
First of all, I didn’t even want this job. [Laugh] Why didn’t I want it? I knew before I came here how taxing, how completely absorbing and the enormity of responsibility it is to do this job. I don’t feel like I should have to want to do that. Or anyone should. Also, I’m a mother. I’m at the age now where I have more time, but if you had come to me when I was 35 – 45 I would have said no way, I’ve got some children I want to raise. Right then and there, it’s not a man / woman thing, it’s how you want to live your life and how you want to spend your time.
Then, I think, another important ingredient is the development of leaders. I think we tend to associate leaders with this one kind of personality instead of embracing the fact that there are all kinds of effective leaders who lead in a variety of ways. Women, in general, are very different from men. I’m only speaking from my own experience… If you’re only encouraging the kind of female leaders that are like male leaders, you’re eliminating a whole pool of talent that needs to be developed.
My daughter attended an all girl school in New York and she does here as well, and they’re very focused on the development of female leaders. My impression is that you have to celebrate what’s inside each young woman and teach them that it’s not just the person who wants to be the boss, who wants to micromanage everything, who’s the best leader. The best leader are the people who inspire you to be the best at whatever you want to do. Then you get the best set of everyone around you, instead of someone telling everyone else what to do all the time. When I was a kid, that’s what I thought a leader was, the one who wanted to be the boss.
I think that’s one of the things that I had to come to terms with and ask myself. Is there somebody else more qualified to do this job than you? So I asked myself a few important questions and decided to accept the challenge because I wanted to be that person. I wanted to show my children that example. I was excited about the opportunity to make a contribution to the artistic landscape of our nation’s capital. I think it’s a very big and important job, but it’s not because I wanted to be the boss. All of these things are very subtle differences and nuance, but that’s where the conversation starts, not in the obvious… We will see in the coming years much more development of female leadership in the arts.
The other point that I always add to this, is when you look back 75 years ago, all of these big companies were founded by women. American Ballet Theatre was founded by a woman in 1940. The Washington Ballet was founded by a woman 70 years ago. The National Ballet was founded by a woman. The Royal Ballet was founded by a woman. You can go on and on and on. All these women leaders founded these art institutions based on this common love for the institution and then over the years they were passed down to men. Why? Maybe their board of directors were men and when the board was choosing a new leader they were more simpatico with men and maybe that’s how it happened. A sociologist could do some research on why, but it’s not that they never existed. It’s that, for whatever reason, they went out of the cycle and it took a big push to get them back in.
In my personal experience, as a ballerina, it’s an art form that reveres women. As a director, I think the jury is still out. What can I say? My life has always been the work speaks for itself. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man, a woman or whatever. You should do the work and it should speak for itself. Hopefully that kind of philosophy will be more apart of culture then what you look like or what sex you are, what your hashtag is.
That’s what I want it to be. What’s your hashtag?
My husband reminded me of this quote that I used to talk about a lot that Margaret Thatcher said. It’s more effective when I do her accent, “It used to be that people wanted to do something. Now people just want to be something.”
Do you find that still resonates?
Yes. Thank god there’s a lot of people, like me, that do want to do something, but there is a lot of looking like you’re doing something. Or I want to be a star, be a celebrity, versus I just want to do what I want to do. Like the first question, it wasn’t about the benefits or the salary or the paycheck, it was that I got to do what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, that’s what I said. At the end of my performing career, the greatest reward was what I got to do. There’s nothing else. Curtains down. It’s over. There’s no golden parachute or stock shares. It’s just… I got to do that. Lucky me.