Here's some good news for International Women's Day: Former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent will become The Washington Ballet's new artistic director. The company revealed her appointment last night, just a month after longtime artistic director Septime Webre announced he was stepping down.
Kent taking her final bow. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Kent, 46, will take over starting July 1, and her husband Victor Barbee will become associate artistic director—a position he's held at ABT for the past 13 years. The move is a return to the DC area for Kent, who trained at the Academy of Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda, and whose mother still lives nearby. The beloved ballerina just retired last June after a 29-year career at ABT, and was most recently working as the artistic director of that company's summer intensives. It has not yet been announced who will take over for her in that role, or for Barbee as associate artistic director, but Kevin McKenzie wished both the best in a statement, adding that, "Together, they epitomize ballet artistry at its highest level."
In her new role, Kent will oversee the 21-member company, plus the trainee program, the school and its outreach activities. Her appointment makes her one of just a few female leaders in ballet today. Although The Washington Ballet was founded by pioneer Mary Day in 1976, once it became an established success, it was then led by a man for several years (an all-too-familiar pattern in American ballet companies). Kent told Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post that she initially turned down the job. "What ultimately lured her were the twin attractions of taking on a leadership role—becoming one of the few women in the nation to head a ballet company—and doing so in her home town," writes Kaufman.
A pregnant Julie Kent on our April 2004 cover. She and Barbee will bring their two children, now 11 and 6, with them to DC.
What's clear is that it's a boost of star power for The Washington Ballet. One of the company board members involved in the selection process was none other than her former ABT colleague, David Hallberg, who told Kaufman, "I’ve seen her inspire an entire room. She's not just relating to the ballerinas who are doing the principal roles but to the newest apprentice in the room." Kaufman reports that along with new leadership, the board hopes to increase the company size to 40 by 2023, adding two dancers each year.
Kent is expected to announce the company's 2016-17 repertoire in a few weeks, after she's had time to assess the dancers. Keep your eyes peeled to get a peek into her artistic taste and vision for the troupe.