Prima Ballerina, Part I

(Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

In the current National Review, we have a piece called “Prima Ballerina.” It’s about Julie Kent, who just retired from the American Ballet Theatre. I interviewed her, and say a fair amount about her in the magazine. But I’d like to say more here, in a Web series. I think you’ll like hearing it.

‐Miss Kent was born in 1969 and joined ABT in 1986, when she was 16. She danced until the 20th of last month. After 29 years, she is the longest-serving dancer in ABT history.

‐Her farewell role was Juliet (in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet). This was fitting, I believe. Juliet is an exceptionally touching role (of course), and Kent is an exceptionally touching dancer.

Some years ago, I heard something I had never heard before in a theater, and have never heard since: sobbing. Sobbing in the seats. It was at the end of Romeo and Juliet.

Most of the credit, surely, goes to Prokofiev and Shakespeare. But some of the credit should go to that night’s ballerina, Julie Kent.

‐I interviewed her before the recent season began, way back in April. It was at ABT headquarters in Manhattan — a rather homely and ramshackle place, not at all glam.

Julie wore an oversize sweater, which I take to be standard ballerina-wear (offstage). She was just as you would have wanted her to be, or hoped she would be: thoughtful, gracious, articulate, sweet. Wonderful smile, wonderful laugh.

Her speech was just slightly southern, or mid-Atlantic, let’s say — Chesapeakey. Distinctive.

Is Julie Kent enchanting offstage as well as on? Oh, yes: She doesn’t have to dance a step (though that doesn’t hurt).

‐ She grew up in Potomac, Md., outside Washington, D.C. Her mother was a ballet teacher; her father was an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service. He participated in Operation Deep Freeze, a series of missions to Antarctica. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery — “just across the way from my husband’s father,” says Kent. “They are literally like ten feet from each other.”

And it was a complete coincidence.

I ask Kent what her husband’s father did. She says that he was in World War II, decorated. I make a remark about “the Greatest Generation.” “Oh, yeah, they were,” says Kent. Then, referring to her family members, she says, “Well, anyway, God bless them both.” As she looks out the window, there are tears in her eyes.

‐To say it again, she was just 16 when she joined the American Ballet Theatre. Soon, she was cast in a movie: Dancers, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great dancer who was then artistic director of ABT. Baryshnikov was quoted in People magazine as saying, “I was absolutely mesmerized by her looks. She has really an extraordinary face, a classic face.”

Once, a writer referred to Miss Kent’s “Botticellian beauty.” That is an apt observation.

‐She was born, not Julie Kent, but Julie Cox. She has told the story of her name-change a thousand times. I ask whether she minds telling it again, to me. Not at all.

Her family figured that she would have a stage career — and that she ought to have a name a little “more glamorous,” as she says. One day, her dad came home with a huge, huge list of federal employees: All the names you could shake a stick at.

His personal favorite, for his daughter, was Adams: “Julie Adams.” That way, you see, her name would probably come first on a roster.

“That’s such a dad thing,” Julie tells me, laughingly.

She said to him, “Dad, you know, I think if I ever have to change my name, someone will just tell me. So I’m just going to keep my own name for now.”

It happened just as Julie thought it would. One day, after she had been selected for ABT, and the movie, an assistant to Baryshnikov, Charles France, said, “Oh, hello, Miss Kent.” She started to giggle. France said, “Are you always going to giggle when someone says your name?”

Julie said, “Well, I think I better ask my parents.” She was just 16. So, she called home, and her dad said, “Well, I would prefer Julie Adams.” “I understand,” said Julie, “but I prefer Julie Kent, because it sounds so much like Julie Cox. It’s an English name, it has one syllable, and it starts with a ‘K’ sound.”

Reluctantly, her dad agreed. And Julie was never hindered by not being at the top of an alphabetical roster.

‐Let’s jump forward to 2000, when Julie was about 30: She appeared in another movie, Center Stage (about the ballet world).

The two movies — Dancers and Center Stage, but especially the latter, I think — made a big difference in Kent’s career. Through a movie, as she says, you can reach a vast audience: far more than you ever could in person. And you achieve a kind of immortality: Onscreen, you’re forever 16 or 30 or whatever it is.

“I’m recognized all the time for Center Stage,” says Kent, especially by young women, it seems. “They come up to me and say, ‘That was my favorite movie, I watched it a million times, thank you so much . . .’”

‐Now and then, you’ll find a little girl whose favorite color is not pink — or purple. But those are few and far between.

Do all little girls like ballet, or are there some holdouts? “Sometimes you run across one who’s just not interested,” says Kent, but “I think the majority of girls like the ballet, or the idea of the ballet, or what they imagine the ballet to be.

“I certainly was that way. My sister was that way. My daughter’s that way. My mother was that way. So, in my family, it’s just sort of part of us.”

‐Do little girls come and see her, after a performance, all nervous and excited?

“Generally, they’re a bit older by the time they come,” says Julie. Ballet is a classical art form, and it requires loads of discipline. The “drop-off” typically occurs when girls are 13 or 14, says Kent. They decide to commit to ballet or go off and do a variety of normal things, such as soccer.

So, “it’s really more the young teenagers who come backstage,” says Kent, “and their hearts are beating so fast. They’re just so excited, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

“That must be very gratifying,” I say.

“Yes,” says Julie, “but gratifying in the sense that it’s a shared experience that we have. Whether you’re the most famous ballerina in the world or just starting out, you have the same journey. A ballet class begins with pliés and so on whether you’re 13 or 43. We all do the same thing.”

Because of the shared experience, “there’s a connection there.” Dancers understand one another. Julie will meet a girl and think, “I know how she feels, because I’ve been there. I know all that she experiences every day in that pursuit to be better, that artist’s pursuit.”

So the excitement backstage “is not so much a reflection of me,” says Kent, “as a reflection of what it is we do.”

That is typical Julie Kent, from what I know: deflecting attention and glory away from self and onto something bigger or deeper, e.g., ballet.

‐Well, I’ve barely begun this conversation, ladies and gentlemen — or barely begun recording it — but maybe that’s enough for Part I? See you tomorrow.

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