The Boss: Julie Kent
After dying for the last time on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, body limp on a cold slab of marble beside her Romeo, Julie Kent rose as she had countless times before to receive the audience's acclaim. As she stood there, surrounded by tearful colleagues and looking impossibly young in Juliet's wispy sheath, she gazed out with a mixture of sadness and gratitude, and perhaps a hint of disbelief.
For many ballet-lovers, it's difficult to remember a time when Julie Kent wasn't dancing on that stage. She began her career at American Ballet Theatre in 1985, at 16, and starred alongside Baryshnikov in Dancers just two years later. After being promoted to principal in 1993, she went on to spend another 22 years at the company, dancing in works by everyone from Petipa to Twyla Tharp.
“It was the most difficult, wonderful experience," she said recently of her retirement. But there has been little time to wallow. Soon after that final Juliet, she became the artistic director of ABT's summer intensives, a network of training programs that serves approximately 1,400 students each year. It seemed like a natural progression, one followed by many women: dancer, teacher, ballet mistress, coach. Ballet is an art sustained by women.
But it is not a profession—at least not in this country—in which women tend to attain the very pinnacle of the hierarchy: the director's office. (Several companies, including the Boston and Pennsylvania Ballets, were started by women—and ABT was co-founded by one—but men have usually replaced them later on.) So it was doubly welcome when it was announced that Kent would be taking over The Washington Ballet starting this month, as a replacement for Septime Webre, who is leaving after 17 years to devote his time to making new works and teaching.
Kent's long ABT career is part of what attracted the search committee. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
The call came, out of the blue, late last year. At first, Kent balked. “I said, 'I'm really very happy with the position I have,' " she explains with a chuckle. She couldn't imagine walking away from a job she had just begun to explore, or, more importantly, uprooting her husband and two children, and leaving behind a close network of friends and colleagues. “I wasn't looking for a major change," she says. “I had already gone through that by ending my performing career." The Washington Ballet search committee persisted. Eventually they met in New York for the first of a series of discussions.
The company had big ambitions, they said. They wanted to expand, to broaden the repertoire, to increase their already significant reach in the community. They were looking for someone who could lead them toward a more prominent place both within and beyond the nation's capital. They were drawn to her name, of course, and her international reputation and connections. But they were also “seeking someone who understood the importance of building an institution," explains Sylvia de Leon, board chair of The Washington Ballet. In other words, someone who would approach the job with a vision for the long term, not just a name. They were impressed by her sense of loyalty—to her company, to her colleagues. Was it important that she was a woman? “It wasn't something we discussed as a committee or was a priority," says de Leon, “but, yes, it was of interest."
Eventually, Kent was won over. The transformation involved a subtle altering of her definition of a leader: not “someone who tells people what to do, somebody who likes to be the boss," but rather someone devoted to serving the art form that had made her who she was. Isabella Boylston, whom Kent coached as Juliet and Sylvia this year, attests to her ability to help dancers find their way into a role. “She doesn't spoon-feed me," Boylston says. “She leaves the structure loose for me in some places so that I can make my own choices." By directing a company, Kent would be in a position to promote arts education, form the next generation of dancers and argue for the inherent value of art, beyond such ephemeral gratifications as fame or Instagram followers. “I want to be the reassuring voice that reminds dancers that at the end of the day, it's about the work. That is your reward. That's what you're left with."
It made sense in other ways, too. Kent grew up in nearby Potomac and studied at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, under Hortensia Fonseca, who studied with Mary Day, co-founder of The Washington School of Ballet and artistic director of The Washington Ballet for more than 20 years. Kent's mother, sister and brother still live in the area. She and her husband would be able to move their family into a house, with a yard—something their 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, in particular, is excited about. “The minute it left her lips" that she had been approached by The Washington Ballet, says Kevin McKenzie, Kent's boss at ABT, “I had a bittersweet thought: This is going to happen, and of course it should happen."
Kent hopes to shape students' priorities. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy TWB
Kent has started to draw up plans: Expanding community programs like the company's existing collaboration with THEARC (through which it provides training, a sliding-fee payment scale, classes for beginners and more). Building up the number of dancers from 21 to 40 so that the company can perform a wider variety of repertoire (her first hire was Cuban dancer Rolando Sarabia). Bringing in masterworks by the great choreographers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Using live music whenever possible. Finding a replacement for the director of the school, Kee Juan Han, who retired in April. And, of course, commissioning new ballets from internationally respected choreographers and introducing new choreographers to the DC audience.
Her first program will be a 40th-anniversary event called Looking Back~Moving Forward. Another will include Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, Alexei Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas—she was in the original cast—and Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. In the spring, she hopes to put on Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas and Frederick Ashton's The Dream, both of which she danced countless times.
These ballets (which are all in ABT's rep as well) would then lead into future seasons, in which she'd like to introduce themed programs of English, Russian and American works. She's looking at ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Mark Morris—maybe even Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. And after that, who knows? She would like to build a collaboration with one of the city's other large cultural institutions, perhaps the Smithsonian or the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I want to try to create an atmosphere inspired by the Ballets Russes exhibition When Art Danced With Music," she says, “where you have the artists of the day designing sets and costumes to a new creation by the choreographer of the day with a new score." Her ambitions are not timid.
“It's a big step to go from being a choreographer-led company to a company with an orientation toward building the institution and building audiences," says Sarah L. Kaufman, the dance critic for the Washington Post. “Until now, there's been an emphasis on energy and the new, and not always as much of an emphasis on refinement of classical technique."
One of the reasons Kent is so confident that she can get this all done is that her husband, Victor Barbee, is coming with her. He too is a company man, having worked with ABT for four decades, first as a dancer, and, for the last 13 years, as associate artistic director. He'll have the same title in Washington; only his boss will change. It's heartening to see a husband prepared to play the supportive role in the workplace. By his own account, he prefers to get things done outside the spotlight, spending his days between the studios and administrative offices, “seeing to one detail after the next, refining and refining."
Her final curtain call: “The most difficult, wonderful experience." Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
Like any new opportunity, the move is a leap of faith. Kent has never directed a ballet company, planned seasons, courted donors, hired or fired dancers. But how will she ever know if the job suits her unless she tries it? “I gave myself the advice I would have given my children," she says. “You have to go for it."
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."