Inside DM

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."

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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