ABT's Julie Kent celebrates two decades on the job.
Thu Jul 13 2006
Photograph: Roy Round
LET IT FLY Kent as Juliet.
Photograph: Roy Round
Julie Kent is one of those rare ballerinas whose radiance, even after 20 years, continues to bloom with exhilarating unpredictability. In 1986, at the invitation of then artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov, she joined American Ballet Theatre. Kent, now 37, has performed all of the classical parts, married and had a son with Victor Barbee, a former dancer and ABT’s associate artistic director, and even starred in two films, Herbert Ross’s Dancers and Nicholas Hytner’s Center Stage. On Friday 14, the Maryland-raised dancer celebrates her anniversary in a performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, opposite Marcelo Gomes.
How did you get started? Did your mother teach you?
No, but she was a dancer in New Zealand. Actually, ballet has always been in my family. On their first date, my grandfather took my grandmother to the ballet in Christchurch, New Zealand. And on my parents’ first date, my father took my mother to the ballet. My mother studied ballet and loved it—she was in a semiprofessional company in New Zealand in the ’50s. Her studies took her to Sydney for a year, but she ended up liking the beaches more than the ballet studio and gave it up to becomean airline attendant. My father was an [American] officer in the public health service, and he was wintering over in the Antarctic because he was a nuclear radiation safety officer; they were doing nuclear testing in the Antarctic and while he was there, they met on an airplane. A very romantic story: He asked an old lady to switch seats with him. The one rule the air hostesses had was that there was to be no fraternizing with the American officers, especially those in uniform—here it is, her first day on the job, and there’s my father sitting in full uniform and everything. So she was breakin’ the rules from the start. [Laughs] Anyway, it was a whirlwind romance. Three days later, he proposes, she accepts and then he spends the winter in the Antarctic—they don’t see each other for ten months. There’s no contact because of the frigid conditions—no airplanes could deliver mail, and there were no phone calls or anything. He marries her and brings her to the United States; my father was a widower, so he already had two boys, who were five and 13. My mother was just 21. I was the last of the three children they had together, and after I was born, my mom took ballet to get back in shape. A neighbor told her about a good local school, and she went there and really enjoyed it and would bring me with her. So I would do coloring when I was two or three or however old I was and watch the ladies dance. Mind you, all of those ladies are still in the same class! [Laughs] They all come to see me dance. They all look the same to me. My older sister danced, and you want to do whatever your sister does. And I just remember thinking that I might be a little bit good at it because whenever I pointed my foot, my mom or people would say, “Oh that’s a pretty foot.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew that it was good if they thought I had a nice foot. And then it just happened. Actually, the neighbor who told my mom about the ballet school ended up taking me to New York for my audition for Baryshnikov. My mother, for some reason, didn’t think that it was right that she go. So ballet has always been a part of my life. It wasn’t my idea or my obsession. It was obviously in our family for a long time, and I think it says something kind of interesting—even in New Zealand, where ballet is not a huge part of the culture—that the Ballets Russes or whoever those pioneers were that brought ballet to faraway places really did make an impact on a lot of people’s lives. That audiences saw something that they had never seen before and were so moved by it that they really wanted to see it whenever they had the chance.
Do you remember your audition for ABT?
It was huge. I don’t really think they have auditions like that anymore. It was at the front of the room, Studio 5 at ABT. At the front were Baryshnikov and Charles France, John Taras, Kenneth MacMillan, Twyla Tharp, Shelley Washington, Georgina Parkinson, Jurgen Schneider—the entire artistic staff. Michael Lland taught the class. I think Nora Kaye was there, and we all had numbers and the room was packed! It was a big, big deal. I was 16 at the time, and my father really wasn’t at all interested in me moving to New York. This audition was in October. I was a junior in high school. So I wasn’t really thinking, This is my one and only chance to audition for ABT. It was kind of presented to me that this was an opportunity for Baryshnikov to see me and to see what he thought about me. And the school where my mother and I studied, by the way, actually was excellent—Hortensia Fonseca produced Peter Fonseca, Susan Jaffe, Cheryl Yeager and many other dancers who went on to smaller companies, not just ABT. Peter had told Charles about me; I also think Alan Kriegsman, who had seen me dance in Maryland, had mentioned me to Misha and Charles. I remember Charles coming up to me before the audition, saying, “Are you Julie?” The thing I remember being most concerned about was the usual: Should you do class in pointe shoes or flat shoes? Because at home, we always did class in flat shoes and then would switch to pointe at the end of class. But coming to New York, I knew that at the School of American Ballet—because I had been there the summer before—you did the whole class en pointe. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have anyone to ask, so I thought, Well, I’d better stick my pointe shoes on. Don’t want them to think I’m lazy or something. So I put them on and it was the wrong decision! [Shrieks with laughter] Michael Lland was completely from the school that says, You work on your technique in your technique shoes and then you put your pointe shoes on later. So he was screaming through the whole barre, “No toes! No toes!”—meaning don’t go on your toes. And I knew he was really aggravated. You can’t balance on demi-pointe in pointe shoes, so the first thing he gave in the center was a grand pli in first position, which is virtually impossible. And sure enough, I’m in the second group, front line, I go down and boom goes my hand to the floor. I had to start giggling a little bit. I guess it’s just my nature, right? You could either laugh or cry. I had one of two options. I just understood the whole thing: He’s mad because we put on our pointe shoes and I thought, “Just do the best you can.” After class, during my meeting with Baryshnikov in his office, the first thing he asked me was, “How do you think you did?” Which I think is a very interesting question because it reveals a lot about you, how you answer it. If you say, “It was a great class, I did really well,” then maybe that means that’s the best you’ve ever danced. [Laughs] Or if you’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe how bad I did,” then maybe it wasn’t an honest representation of your talent. And I just said, “Well, some things were okay and some things weren’t so good.” Which was honest! Some things were okay, and some things, like putting my hand on the ground, were not so good. And then he said he understood the situation with my parents and that if I could be an apprentice for Nutcracker, it might be a nice way for me to be in the company but not full-time. And actually it was a very good idea, since it introduced me to what being a professional dancer would be like. It sort of gave my parents an idea that this would probably be the path I would take instead of going to college and studying English and doing what you do. [Laughs]
As an apprentice, where did you live?
I was in Maryland. And how this worked was that I came to New York during Thanksgiving break and stayed with Isabel Brown—I ended up staying with her for three years. I just took time off from school and made up for it. I tried to study, and took my books—that was a joke. But I did the best I could, and that year the companywas actually doing Nutcracker in the spring at the Met. They did it on tour in Washington, which is where I lived, so I was able to live at home.
What was your first performance with ABT?
It was Nutcracker in California. I was in the party scene and was a snowflake. I just loved it. I couldn’t have been a happier party-scene girl or snowflake girl. In the vision at the end, when Clara’s reflecting on everything, a party-scene girl comes out as a snowflake, and I was so happy because I got to be in the second act, too. All you did was sort of come onstage, but —when you first come on the scene, those things—any chance you have to get on the stage—just make you so happy.
Julie Kent as Sylvia.
Photograph: Marty Sohl
Did you only love dancing when you got to perform? Or did you love it before?
I went onstage for the first time when I was a little girl. Mrs. Fonseca did these wonderful original story ballets—she did all the costumes and choreography and set design. She’s an incredibly talented artist and I remember the first time I was just so in love with telling a story on the stage without words and just acting. All of that stuff that you can see children enjoy so much. It’s so wonderful, the whole Nutcracker phenomenon that happens in this country. The best part about it is that children get to experience that feeling of being on the stage and telling a story, of feeling what it’s like with the lights on you and knowing that you’re sharing something. It’s just a wonderful, magical gift and that’s what I fell in love with; as my experiences grew, I got to see more and more of what dancing meant. I used to [perform as a] super when New York City Ballet would come to the Kennedy Center. Both ABT and City Ballet came to the Kennedy Center for long seasons. I was in Copplia and Mozartiana and I was just in awe of all the ballerinas: Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride. All the dancers—that whole mystique, the pointe shoes: The whole thing was so glamorous and enticing and interesting.
Was Suzanne Farrell dancing Mozartiana?
Yes. And I was the holding-hand girl. [Laughs] I was so nervous! It’s still a really special memory. I can remember how it felt now. It was a highlight. It’s so nice for a child to dance something so beautiful and complete and complex, yet simple. It really made an impact.
Why did you want to join ABT and not NYCB?
To be honest, I don’t think it was my decision. I think it was just a course of events that happened. I would have been very happy in NYCB also—from what I understood NYCB to be at the time. I was 16. I just knew they were both great companies. I didn’t know how actually different the approaches and the roles were. I knew they were both great companies and I would love to have danced in either one. It just so happened that Baryshnikov offered me a contract and my dad wouldn’t let me go to the School of American Ballet during my junior year because he wanted me to stay at home. It just happened, you know? [Laughs] Somebody asked me recently if there were things I wish I could have danced, and my answer is all the Balanchine ballets I would have loved to dance that I know I never will. They’re just so beautiful, and when I see them I wish I could have had the opportunity. But there’s nothing I can do about it! I just have to accept it, enjoy the fact that they exist and that I can watch somebody else dance them, and finally just appreciate their beauty and the fact that they are in the world. Sometimes imagining what it feels like to dance is better than the real thing! [Laughs] That’s the only thing. Because I’ve done pretty much the entire classical rep and I can’t think, “Oh I’m just dying to do Copplia or something like that.” But then there are Concerto Barocco and Serenade—some of those pieces that are just, like, perfect. That’s okay. If I had gone there, I wouldn’t have danced so many other roles. I think you just have to accept things, and I certainly can’t say that I have any regrets as far as, Oh I think my career would have been so much better if I had gone somewhere else. ABT has actually afforded me the most incredible life and experiences, and it couldn’t have been any more special.
What was your relationship like with Charles France?
Well, I was scared of Charles. I was afraid of him. I went into his office during my first or second year. Obviously, I must have been feeling okay, because we were doing Nutcracker, I was learning the ballerina doll in the first act and I really wanted to learn the Shepherdess in the second act, since I could hop en pointe. I asked Charles if I could learn Shepherdess. [She imitates France’s reaction by pointing her index finger toward her nose]: “Now, Julie, you know there are some people in this company whose careers are looked after...” He just basically told me that if they thought I should be learning it that I would be learning it and not to worry myself thinking about whether I should be learning it or not. I was kind of like, Okay. I’m never going to come in here again. [Laughs] I have to say that in my entire experience at ABT, I have never felt that there was anyone blocking me or who didn’t support me, or felt like there was something that shouldn’t be developed or encouraged or nurtured. Including Charles. And Charles did not feel that way about a lot of people and even he saw that, so that’s really incredible. That in 20 years, with all the directors and people who have come through this company, I never crossed somebody of whom I’ve thought, I don’t like this about her so I’m not going to support her. I’ve never felt that, and that’s really amazing. I have so, so appreciated this. It’s been unique. And that’s why I really feel that this celebration—my 20 years at ABT— is really a celebration of so many people’s efforts and willingness to create something and to build something. It was not one person’s vision or Baryshnikov’s dream or Charles’s, but collectively everybody has supported me and helped me to have this incredible career. It’s really a reflection of what ABT has to offer a person. It’s a reflection of the company—not just what I’ve done, but a reflection of what they’ve helped me to do.
It’s true. And it’s not the same for everybody. I know it because I hear it and I’ve witnessed it. There have been plenty of people who say things like, “I don’t know why they’re doing this ballet, this role; they’re not right for this—I don’t know what so-and-so sees in them.” Throughout ballet history, it’s always been that way. And I don’t know if people have ever said that about me, but I’ve certainly never felt it on a level that ever blocked me from doing something, which means that if anybody did feel that way, they certainly didn’t act on it.
How did you meet Victor Barbee? Did you dance with him?
A little bit. I always wanted to meet Victor Barbee because I had seen him dance a million times and I never knew what he looked like and I know everybody says the same thing because he always has on a wig and character makeup. I never saw him dance Swan Lake or Bayadre. When I joined the company as an apprentice, he was on a leave of absence doing song and dance in Woman of the Year and starring on Broadway shows and things. He had taken the season off and was joining the company at the Met. When I got there, there was this barre downstage, and wherever we went on tour, the downstage left barre was Danny [Danilo] Radojevic, Misha, Gil Boggs, and tall, dark and handsome. [Laughs] And I was like, “Who is that?” And I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I heard this twang. I thought he was Australian or European or something. I certainly didn’t think he was from Raleigh, North Carolina. And sure enough, I asked somebody after class. I was like, “Who is that guy standing at the barre with Misha?” Oh, that’s Victor Barbee and he has a girlfriend. I was like [Sharp intake of breath], Okay. Mind you, I’m 16. I’m just a kid. Of course, I had a crush on him but it was just a teenage crush. He was always so nice to me, and when we went Italy to film the movie, he was so nice—nice as in the kind person that he is.
Not in a creepy way.
Yes. Just checking on me. He probably realized that I had a crush on him, so he would make sure that he wasn’t encouraging the crush but at the same time would make sure that I was okay and happy and all that kind of thing. And then we were friends, and about six years later, we started dating. He was in relationships and things like that. Our first kiss was in a rehearsal for Firebird, Studio 1. I was his Czarina and he was the Prince. We actually played Firebird at our wedding—the music is so beautiful. We danced an Agnes de Mille ballet called The Other together. But that was sort of how we met. He’s really been the most responsible for how I’ve developed, how I think about my work, how I’ve developed as an artist. It’s everything he’s given me at home, in discussion, not to mention in the studio. Georgina Parkinson’s really given me her heart and soul about trying to dance and be physical, creating a theatrical atmosphere, discovering myself as a dancer. I’ve just never forgotten seeing him doing a performance of Agnes de Mille’s The Informer. I had never seen anything like it before. I had seen ballet and tutus and Swan Lake, but I had never seen a man crying onstage. I had never seen somebody totally transform themselves; there I was, looking at the stage, at this person whom I knew, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so moved that he was able to completely take himself out of his body and bring to life this other character. It was a really life-changing experience for me, and I just remember being totally in awe of him and his talent after that. And really understanding in a way that, wow—that’s what you can do. It’s not just about having nice line; it’s about this huge transformation that you can make and move people with and that can leave them astounded. That’s been a big part of what I have strived for and worked for.
Who changed your name?
Charles. That’s another Charles story. We’re at the Met and this whole thing about the movie had come up. I was meeting Herbert Ross and Nora Kaye and all of a sudden he just starts calling me Julie Kent. “Hey look, it’s Ms. Kent.We have Julie Kent here.” And of course, I started laughing. He said, “What? Are you going to laugh every time someone says your name?” And I was like, “Well, I think I’d better ask my parents.” [Laughs] I mean, hello? Right? So I call my parents and I said, “Charles is calling me Julie Kent. I think they really want me to change my name to Julie Kent.” And we had discussed my changing my name earlier, before I became a professional dancer. We just kind of abandoned it thinking, Oh if it ever comes up somebody will suggest it. And that’s exactly what happened. But my father really wanted me to change it to Julie Adams because, being a dad, my name would be first on the roster. [Laughs] But Julie Kent, to me, sounded more like Julie Cox: an English name, same sound, one syllable. It just sounded more familiar to me and so I just went with Charles’s idea. But I remember him saying, “What? Are you going to laugh every time someone says your name?” I was like, “Who said it’s my name? I haven’t really asked my mom and dad. I think they have the last say!”
It’s my name, crazy man.
[Laughs] Charles said something about me reminding him of Allegra Kent and I knew the name but I didn’t know what he meant by that. I never saw Allegra dance when she was my age, but now that I know her and what she looks like, I can maybe get an idea of what he was thinking. And so many people ask me if I’m her daughter.
From Swan Lake, Act II.
Photograph: Rosalie O'Connor.
Really? At the time or now?
Yeah. A lot of people still think it. And we used to do Nutcrackers together in Stanford: Ms. Kent and Ms. Kent. But the funny thing is that we both changed our names. [Laughs]
What does a dancer of your stature work on?
Oh, everything. Yeah. That’s the thing. It never stops.
Does it get harder?
I don’t know if it gets harder. I think it’s just coming to terms with that exact thing: that it never stops. And at some point you’d like to think that maybe you could just perform, but the fact of the matter is, you can’t. And in the end, I think that when you get to that point, you don’t really want to do it anymore. It’s the process. It’s like anything: The process has to be what it’s about and what has to be enjoyable and motivating and interesting. I still work on so many things. It’s a challenge.
Tell me about your Juliet.
What...about her? [Cracks up]
What kind of Juliet is she? How has she changed? Or how have your interpretations changed over the years?
I haven’t been consciously aware of any decision to change them. I feel like I know Giselle and Juliet like people. I know these characters. So I don’t really reevaluate how they feel or think; I think that over all of these years, I have tried to add layers and layers and layers to weave a very detailed, beautiful piece of fabric. I think at this point and starting probably when my son was born, I started taking away, revealing, so that what is left is the essence of what I want to say about my work. I don’t need to keep putting more and more and more because it’s enough. Now my work is about revealing what’s there, so that in the end you have this beautiful, gossamer, effortless, weightless piece of fabric—you see the essentials and that’s all you need to know. In a figurative way, that’s kind of how I have been working. In the end, it’s much more simple. And don’t think this is a concept that I’ve come up with—as you see with a lot of mature artists, that is, in essence, what everybody does. You do so much more with so much less because you don’t need it. At that point, doing more, more, more is no longer necessary.
Who have you watched? Who has that quality?
I admire everyone. I’ve never been one to admire one person and to think that because I admire that person that they were the best. I have admired dancers in the corps that never did one standout role, but just thought that there was something about them that captivated me and made me want to watch them dance. I’ve watched all the great ballerinas in this company for the past 20 years. Julio [Bocca] is a perfect example of someone who does more with less. Everybody gets to that point—Alessandra [Ferri] does it, Cynthia Gregory used to do it. Everybody has a different physicality and approach, but you can see that process. It ends up being manifested in different ways with different dancers. I think that you would agree: It looks different on every dancer.
Do you study acting?
No. I haven’t really done any formal acting classes. Just with Victor and in whatever film work I’ve done, working with the directors; it’s like with anything: You learn by watching other people and thinking, What is it that’s important about that scene? What makes you care in the next scene if nothing happens in the scene before? Just simple questions that you have to ask yourself in telling a meaningful story. And if you decide how it’s going to be from the minute the curtain goes up, it ends up not touching people because they can already see how it’s going to end before it starts. You have to establish in the second act how much the Swan Queen loves the Prince. Otherwise, in the fourth act you don’t care that her heart’s broken or how devastated she is. If that’s not a priority in your work, then that’s not going to be a priority in your performance. Other things will take the place of that priority, which is good. That’s whatever that person feels is a reflection of their time and effort and work—and a reflection of them. I guess it’s good. It makes each performance different.
What actors do you admire?
Of course, I love Robert De Niro. Everybody does. I love Jessica Lange. Everybody does! [Laughs] A lot of the great actors and actresses know their craft so well; some of them are movie stars and some of them are just really great at movie acting, and there’s a difference. I think movie acting is totally different than stage acting—it doesn’t mean that if you’re not great on the stage that you’re not great in film. They’re two totally different venues and the nuances of film acting, just that breathing and silence and doing nothing that you can see on the screen is so different than trying to project into a house. Ballet is such a fascinating combination of both because you don’t have the voice, you don’t have that projection so you have to have the nuances of your physicality. It’s a combination of both. You have to have some nuance that you can use and that would be applicable to film work but you also have to have the volume and ability to project that you need in stage-theater work. My role for film would have been The Piano—she didn’t speak the whole film! [Laughs] I loved that.
How did Dancers happen?
Charles probably could have told you more. From what I understand, they really wanted to do a film capturing Baryshnikov’s portrayal of Albrecht, and I think Herbert wanted to do another dance movie and so they decided to come up with this life-imitates-art-imitates-life of the story of Giselle. They needed to find a real-life Giselle and when I came on the scene, Charles and Misha thought I was the right one. I remember Charles calling my mother in February talking about me being in a movie starring with Baryshnikov; she was supposed to talk to my dad and myself and call him back. I don’t think she ever called him back. She was like, “Whaaat?” [Laughs] Sure enough, I met Herbert and Nora. At the time, Herbert was filming Secret of My Success here in New York so my screen test was in one of that film’s opening scenes. There were four of five girls who they thought might have potential—the other girls were laughing and running and I was looking at my watch, wondering if my hair was in a bun. And being very active and pretending, and I think that as juvenile as that sounds now, it set me apart: At least it showed that I had some imagination. I was willing to try to do something besides just run and giggle. And so it all just happened. The really sad part was that Nora was dying during the filming. It was a very, very sad time and it must have been very hard for Herbert—for everybody—to be going through that.
Recently, I watched the movie—not in its entirety, but the summer before last I was asked to give an introductory talk at Jacob’s Pillow because they were screening it. So I stayed and watched a little bit of it. I hadn’t seen it in so long. The movie is 20 years old. I was so proud of so much of it because it was such an honest reflection of so many things that were happening in the world at that time. The world is so different now. It was at the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was President, the Berlin Wall was still up. There were no cell phones, no nternet, no so many things that have just changed the world completely. There’s just an innocence. You can see it on everyone’s faces. Besides the fact that we were all 20 years younger, there’s a softness. Everything isn’t slick. The clothes we were wearing were very ’80s—it’s just different. It’s not so polished. It’s not perfect. And it’s beautiful. There are some really beautiful things in that movie: beautiful dancing and scenery and innocence. It’s completely unsophisticated and I am really just so honored and proud that that experience was in my life. Of course, I just couldn’t believe it—I was a teenager in Italy filming that movie. I’d been out of the country once or twice, but two months in Italy with Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne and all these stars... There I was—I didn’t know what I was doing. But now, looking back on it and seeing what we did is really a beautiful thing. It was so hard for the dancers. I had such a special experience because I wasn’t really involved in too much of the dancing, and I was treated a lot nicer than everybody else. But that, again, is part of the whole thing that dancers now would never understand because it wouldn’t be like that anymore. It would be different. But you can see all of that in the film. You can see that the dancers were waiting around for hours and hours up in a room that was 85 degrees and then had to come down—but it’s part of the whole...
Have your looks ever been a detriment to your career? The fact that you’re so pretty.
I don’t know. I’ve never really thought too much about that. I mean, I really don’t know. I think maybe some people assume that I see myself a certain way because other people do, but I never have. And when I was growing up, I was never the pretty girl at school. Or with my parents: It was never, like, Oh Julie’s so beautiful. It was never a part of my development. It was only when I came to New York that people started telling me I was pretty. But it was never something that I actually thought of myself as being. So I don’t know.
It’s a weird question.
It is a weird question because you never see yourself as other people do, so I think if other people have a problem with the concept of somebody being beautiful, then it’s their problem. Do you know what I mean? But I don’t see myself in that way. I remember once, when I was doing Anastasia in that first scene where she has all her hair chopped off, that somebody came up to me and said, “When you first appeared I thought, No, no, I just can’t believe this—you’re just too beautiful even in that wig. But after five minutes, I forgot all about it” and blah, blah, blah. I thought, That’s a funny thing because I looked in the mirror and thought Oh my God. How could you think that? That would be the last thing I’d think people would be thinking: Oh, she even looks pretty with short hair? [Laughs] I don’t think so.