Prima Ballerina, Part III

Julie Kent bids farewell at the Metropolitan Opera House, June 20, 2015 (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 has expanded his magazine piece into a series here online. For the first two parts, go here and here. The series concludes today.

Sheepishly, I ask Julie Kent a clichéd question: Any favorite roles? No, no. “I love them all, in different ways. They all represent different things to me, different moments in my life. They’re all sort of close friends of mine — and I don’t love one of them more than another.”

Kent says that a much easier question for her is, “What roles or ballets are your least favorite?” Alas, she is too discreet to get into that. (These are roles and ballets she stays away from regardless.)

‐Any favorite dancers? No, no. She has admired and learned from many.

“I’ve always been a visual learner and an analytical person when it comes to trying to determine what it was with a certain dancer or a certain performance or a certain situation that made it so wonderful and special. I want to figure it out, so that I can develop it for myself, if I’m capable of it. And if I’m not — I mean, I’m never going to be able to balance like Cynthia Gregory. That’s just not gonna happen, but . . .”

“Balance?” I ask.

“Like, let go and stay,” says Kent. Cynthia Gregory “could just let go and stay or turn or whatever. I watched her at the end of her career and saw how she would use what she had to its maximum. And that’s what you see in seasoned professional dancers: They know very well what they have, and they use it beautifully.

“So, if you’re really an acute observer, you can try to identify what it is that makes a person special and then try to develop it in yourself — or at least develop an eye. That’s a huge part of learning in the ballet community.”

‐Kent, as you know, is the longest-serving dancer in the history of the American Ballet Theatre. She has been with them for almost 30 years. She is now 45 years old — elderly, in ballet terms. To what does she attribute her longevity? Physical health, mental health?

Yes, says Julie, “and my partners, my repertoire, and I think my children. They gave me strength and energy — a push.”

It would be natural to regard having children as a career-killer. For Julie Kent, it was a boost.

She is married to Victor Barbee, a former dancer who is now the associate artistic director of ABT. Their children are William, eleven, and Josephine, six. I remark that they must get a kick out of seeing their mom dance.

They do, says Kent — “but at the end of the day, I’m their mom,” and the dance career is “really not that big a deal to them. They love it when I’m bowing — ‘Mom!’ [waving] ‘Mom!’ — and they love my dressing room. They love the whole thing. But they love Mom more than any of that, and they understand that, as much as I love and am committed to my work, it’s nothing compared with my love for and commitment to them.”

‐We talk a little about dance on video. You can YouTube almost anything. “If someone watches a video of you online,” I ask, “has he seen Julie Kent dance, sort of?”

She answers, “He’s seen a film of Julie Kent dancing, and that is something else. As soon as you film ballet, it’s no longer ballet. It’s film. A film of ballet. Because what makes any live performance so moving is that, well, it’s a live performance. And you are there to experience it. As soon as it’s filmed, the whole medium has changed. It’s different. It’s still beautiful, and it still has value, but it’s a captured moment, as opposed to a live moment.”

(So true.)

‐Anything left undone or undanced? “Well, sure,” says Julie. “I don’t know about ‘undone,’ but I would have loved to dance more Balanchine, more Ashton, more MacMillan.” (These are choreographers, as you know.) “There are some really exquisite pieces I wish I could have danced, but I don’t think I’m in any position to complain about anything — I’ve had such a blessed experience in repertoire that has been brought into ABT for me or for us as a collective, and it’s been such a joy.”

Julie mentions that she would have liked to dance more in London, and for an interesting reason: “My coach and mentor — my second mother here — Georgina Parkinson, was a ballerina at the Royal Ballet.”

She also mentions two pieces, specifically, she would have liked to dance: Serenade and Concerto Barocco (both by Balanchine). “But I’m just glad they exist so I can watch them. When you haven’t danced something, there’s a beauty to it that is so fresh, because you are a real observer. You have the experience that other people have when they watch it. You don’t know it in the same way, so you can be moved in a completely different way, when you see a ballet you have not danced before.”

‐We talk a little about fame and reputation — posterity. Kent says,

“I’ve admired many dancers that were completely unknown, that were in the corps de ballet, that were beautiful, exquisite, and I loved how they danced, and I loved everything about their whole approach to dance. Generally they didn’t last very long — they were rather fragile. But there was something really beautiful about them, especially when you saw them in a line of girls, having their individual experience.

“It’s a very beautiful thing to watch, the corps de ballet, especially close up, as we [principals] get to do every day.”

‐Have another Kent observation:

“Your reputation in the private community of dance and your reputation in the public are two different things, really.” Some dancers are respected and admired by people who have worked with them for a long time. They are esteemed by insiders. “Then there’s the hubbub. The hubbub goes away after a while, but the real deal doesn’t.” The real dancer is remembered, by his or her peers. (At least that is what I take from what Julie has said.)

‐In these twilight days, she has been talking about something she never spoke of before: a note given to her by Natalia Makarova, just before she appeared in Makarova’s production of La Bayadère. The note said approximately this: “Dear Julie: Someone once said, ‘Beauty can save the world.’ What a great responsibility you have on your shoulders.”

Here at ABT headquarters, Kent says, “This note meant a lot to me, in many different ways over the years. I’ve interpreted it in different ways. It’s inspired me in different ways. It’s motivated me in different ways. And I feel now it’s — well, it’s true.”

Kent believes that beauty, in various forms, is a human need and balm.

‐ From her girlhood, she wanted to be a ballet dancer. She had a little tape recorder and would go to sleep listening to ballet scores by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, et al. She saw in her head how she would dance to the music.

‐Some years ago, a pianist (Jerome Rose) taught me a saying: “You play who you are.” I think of this when listening to Kent talk about Nina Ananiashvili, the Georgian ballerina who retired from ABT in 2009. She is one of my personal favorites.

Kent says, “She’s a very lovely, warm person, and one of the reasons she was so adored was that you could see that in her work.”

Surely, a similar statement can be made about Kent.

‐She bade farewell, in Romeo and Juliet, on June 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House. When she made her entrance, the applause for her was long and loud. Also, she seemed more girlish than ever, as she frolicked around the Nurse.

Why was she retiring?

‐Under normal circumstances, Romeo and Juliet is hard to take, so tragic is it. At Kent’s farewell, it was triply hard to take. There must have been few dry eyes in the house, as the ballet ended.

The ovation for Julie Kent went on for nearly a half-hour, as her colleagues honored her with flowers, embraces, and whispered words.

Last to emerge from the wings were her family: her husband, Victor, and their two children. Tears flowed freely from their son. Julie took him to the front of the stage and curtsied to him He smiled a bit. The house swooned.

‐What can I say? This, along with a great many others: I’m sorry she’s gone. But I’m glad to have seen her. (And to have spoken with her.)

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