Culture

Prima Ballerina, Part II

Julie Kent, with Roberto Bolle, in her farewell performance (Romeo and Juliet). (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Prima Ballerina,” about Julie Kent. The famed American dancer has just retired after almost 30 years with the American Ballet Theatre. Mr. Nordlinger sat down with her several weeks before her farewell performance. He is expanding his magazine piece into a series here online, Part I of which was published yesterday.

Julie Kent has always been known for her classic lines onstage. She is virtually nonpareil, where elegance of line is concerned. Among other things, she has the body for it. The instrument.

That makes a difference, right? I mean, not just any body type can succeed in ballet.

It’s true, Julie confirms. “Some people are gifted with that classical form,” she says. “Ballet is based on the ancient Greek philosophy of beauty. Some people are gifted with those kinds of lines, and some people are gifted with other things, so the goal is to make your instrument as refined, elevated, and resonating as possible.

“There’s a limit to that, with some physiques, that’s true.”

Then she says, “Not everybody can be Derek Jeter either. That’s the reality. Otherwise, we all would be.”

Jeter, for those who may not know, is, like Kent, a recently retired great: he from the New York Yankees, she from the American Ballet Theatre.

‐I bring up the issue of eating disorders in the ballet. She says this problem is not nearly as widespread as people think. She also says, “I definitely feel there’s a stigma attached to pretty much any woman who’s thin, as I am. How does she do it? What does she do? She doesn’t eat anything.

“Nobody would ever think that I have a normal diet . . .”

“Do you?” I interject.

“Yes,” says Julie, “a completely normal diet. I’m just a thin person, and have been my whole life, and I enjoy a really healthy diet. My mother always made sure I had steak and potato and salad, as opposed to girls who thought they were too heavy, and who had a great big salad for dinner, with fat-free dressing on it. By midnight, they were starving, and had a pint of Häagen-Dazs.

“So I have to thank my parents for just sort of common sense.”

Julie then explains that people who aren’t cut out for the ballet — including in their body and diet — don’t last very long. It is too exhausting, mentally and physically, to maintain an unnatural weight. There is a certain self-weeding.

“Everybody has his own shape,” says Julie. “Everybody looks good at a different weight. Some people carry weight beautifully, and on some people it’s not as flattering. It’s all individual, and your job is to make yourself as beautiful as possible.”

‐I ask whether she has any anxiety about retiring. Does she wonder, “What will I do with myself? Will I go to pot?”

Julie says something that makes perfect sense: She has performances to prepare for. (We’re having this interview before the beginning of her final season, remember.) She can’t afford to look too far ahead. You can’t have a foot in each camp: one in the dancing world and one in the post-dancing world.

She will let things unfold, she says. She will take the advice she has given countless high-school and college grads: “Let it all reveal itself to you. As something becomes clear, you become more focused on it, and you understand how to pursue it.”

Julie has a number of things in mind, but, as a general matter, she wants to “share my voice as an American artist, a woman, and a mother,” and to be “an ambassador for dance” and “an advocate for the arts and arts education.”

‐Will she attend the ballet? Or does one simply have to be on the stage?

Laughing, Kent remembers a moment when “Natasha said, ‘It’s a whole lot more enjoyable to dance this than to watch it.’” By “Natasha,” she means Natalia Makarova, the famed Russian ballerina. But “I love ballet,” says Kent, “and I do love to watch it.”

Nevertheless, “watching is a completely different experience from dancing.” Here Miss Kent takes a long, long, reflective pause. “I don’t think you can even compare them.”

‐I say that, for me, ballet is about the women — pure and simple. (I’m laying it on a little thick.) Sure, the men have their moments, but mainly they should frame the women. And stay out of the way.

Kent laughs and laughs.

“Honestly,” I say, “who goes to the ballet for the men?” “A lot of people,” Kent protests. “Is there a starring role for them?” I rejoin. She laughs and says, “Um . . .” Then she laughs some more.

Persisting, I say, “Do they have a title role?” I concede there’s Le Corsaire. Yes, says Kent, but that story is really about the women. “As well it should be,” I say.

“Well,” says Kent, “you and Balanchine are on the same page with that one.” Then she laughs, heartily.

‐I can’t, and won’t, forbear quoting Lincoln Kirstein, the late ballet impresario. He said — or is said to have said — “Modern dance exists for people who can’t do ballet.”

“Ooooh,” says Kent, laughing. “Ouch.” “But it’s kind of true, isn’t it?” I say. Kent denies it, strongly.

“You know, classical ballet is like any other classical art form,” she says, “meaning that it has defined rules of aesthetics: This is correct and this is not correct. Some people have no interest in pursuing that at all. I don’t think Isadora Duncan had aspirations to be a ballerina.”

“Fair enough,” I say.

“I don’t think Martha Graham had any desire to create Sleeping Beauty,” she continues.

Again, fair enough. Still, I think Kirstein’s (alleged) remark is kind of true.

“People don’t say things like that anymore,” Kent observes. “That’s a reflection of another time.” “Maybe,” I say, “but I still love the political incorrectness of it.”

Julie Kent is amused but, ever diplomatic and gracious, noncommittal.

‐Years ago, I read that Fred Astaire didn’t like to dance socially — at parties and so on. Is that true of Kent? It is, for the most part. “I love to watch it, but I’m definitely a chair dancer. I’m far too shy to put myself out there like that.”

I ask what a chair dancer is. The answer is: someone who dances while remaining seated in his chair. Kent demonstrates a little of it — really elegantly.

There are two people Kent doesn’t mind dancing with, socially. Indeed, she loves it. They are her son and her daughter. That’s a different kettle of fish.

‐I comment that I like it very much when ballet dancers do Broadway-style dancing, or jazz dancing, or other kinds of dancing. (In music, we would call this “crossover.”) In response to this, Julie gives a remarkable statement about ballet — and about dancing.

I will paraphrase slightly (as throughout this series), but her statement goes something like this:

“I think ballet dancers elevate, in a way, other kinds of dancing, because of all the background, the schooling. The reason that, when we do développé, it doesn’t look like step, kick, step, kick, is the thought and intention behind it. You understand that it’s a journey, that the movement is motivated by something other than step, kick, step, kick, which is a somewhat pedestrian approach.

“The ballet dancer’s motivation comes from a different place.

“The whole mindset when you go to a ballet class, which is what I do and what a seven-year-old does, is: You stand in first position and begin the pursuit toward that possibility of being better, the possibility of elevating yourself, the possibility of attaining beauty.

“That’s what you see when you see a difference between someone doing step, kick, step, kick, and someone who has the background of every day approaching the movement from a different place: Today, I’m going to do it more beautifully and more expressively. Every moment of the journey, from when I take my foot off the ground and fully extend it to when I bring it back down to where we started, will be an experience.

“That’s what we do every moment of every day, in every gesture, and that is what, whether you know it or not, brings you to tears at the end of Romeo and Juliet. You see, without knowing or understanding it, the investment and the commitment of those people in their pursuit of the ultimate.

“That’s what I love about classical ballet, and that’s what I think is really a beautiful contribution to the human race.”

‐Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll see you tomorrow for our final installment.

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