Magazine | July 20, 2015, Issue

Prima Ballerina

The great Julie Kent bids farewell, June 20, 2015, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City (Rosalie O’Connor)

When Julie Kent made her entrance as Juliet the other night, the applause for her was long and loud. And she seemed more girlish than ever, as she frolicked around the Nurse. Why was she retiring?

But retiring she was. Julie Kent is one of the outstanding ballerinas of our time. She was with the American Ballet Theatre for almost 30 years: 1986 to just the other night. She is a senior citizen, in ballet terms: age 45. Kent is, indeed, the longest-serving dancer in ABT history.

She has danced many roles, but it was fitting she bade farewell as Juliet. It has long been an especially touching role for this especially touching dancer. A few years ago, I heard something I don’t think I had ever heard before in a theater of any kind: sobbing. Sobbing in the seats. It was at the end of Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev and Shakespeare get most of the credit, I think. But some of the credit goes to that night’s ballerina, Julie Kent.

I sat down with her some weeks before her retirement. We met at ABT HQ here in New York. Kent was in an oversize sweater, which is almost stereotypical ballerina-wear. She was thoughtful, gracious, articulate, and sweet. Wonderful smile, wonderful laugh. Her speech was just slightly southern, or mid-Atlantic, let’s say.

Without question, she can enchant people onstage and off.

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.”

Her husband’s father, Kent explains, was a decorated World War II vet. 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.” There are tears in her eyes.

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 said, “I was absolutely mesmerized by her looks. She has really an extraordinary face, a classic face.” One writer once referred to Kent’s “Botticellian beauty.”

She was born Julie Cox, not Julie Kent — but her family always figured she would change her name for the stage (or screen). Her father wanted “Julie Adams.” Why? Her name would likely appear first on a roster! “That’s such a dad thing,” Kent tells me, laughingly. An assistant to Baryshnikov, Charles France, hit on “Kent.” That, she accepted: Like Cox, it was short, English, and started with a “K” sound.

In 2000, by this time an established star of 30, she appeared in another film, Center Stage. The two films made a big difference in her career, she says. You can reach masses of people, and you are, in a sense, immortal — forever 16 or 30 or whatever. Many girls and young women have come up to Kent saying, “Center Stage is my favorite movie. I watched it a million times. Thank you so much.

Screen immortality aside, I ask Kent about her longevity — her dancing longevity. She cites physical and mental health, among other factors. One of those other factors is her children: She had them when her career was well along. “I think they gave me strength and energy — a push.” Some people might regard having children as a career-killer; for Julie Kent, it was a boost.

Her husband is Victor Barbee, a former dancer who is now the associate artistic director of ABT. Their children are William, eleven, and Josephine, six. I tell Julie they must get a kick out of seeing her dance.

They do, she says — “but it’s really not a big deal to them. At the end of the day, I’m their mom. They understand that as much as I’ve been committed to my work, it’s nothing compared with my commitment to them.”

What she will do in retirement, she’s not entirely sure. She will let it unfold. But she intends 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, she 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 Kent takes a long, long, reflective pause. “I don’t think you can even compare them.”

On the stage, she has always been known for her classic lines, her elegance of line. Among other gifts, she has the body for it. The instrument. Which makes a difference, right? I mean, not just any body type can succeed in ballet. True, confirms Kent. “Not everybody can be Derek Jeter either.” (This is the recently retired New York Yankee great.) “That’s the reality. Otherwise, we all would be.”

I bring up the issue of eating disorders among ballet dancers. Kent says that this issue, while important, is overblown. She herself is thin, and always has been. And “nobody would ever think that I have a normal diet” — but she does. Her mother always made sure that Julie had steak, potato, and salad. Other girls, says Julie, have nothing for dinner but a big salad with fat-free dressing on it. ’Round midnight, they’re starving, and scarf a pint of Häagen-Dazs.

In the course of our discussion, I say that, for me, ballet is about the women. 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,” she protests. Persisting, I say, “Is there a starring role for them?” She laughs and says, “Um . . .” Then she laughs some more.

“Do they have a title role?” I say. 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.

Continuing my shtick, or half shtick, I quote 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. “I don’t think Isadora Duncan had aspirations to be a ballerina,” she says, and “I don’t think Martha Graham had any desire to create Sleeping Beauty.” Fair enough. But I still think Kirstein’s (alleged) remark is kind of true.

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

In these twilight days, Kent has been talking about something she never spoke of before: a note given to her by Makarova, just before Kent 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 HQ, 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.” She 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. Is there anything she has left undone?

She cites this and that, but she is “in no position to complain,” as she says: She has had the longest career possible, and has had “such a really blessed experience” in essentially the entire classical repertoire.

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.” A similar statement might be made about Kent.

Romeo and Juliet is tough to take under normal circumstances, so tragic is it. At Julie Kent’s farewell, it was triply hard to take. There must have been few dry eyes in the house. The ovation went on for almost a half hour, as the retiree’s colleagues honored her with flowers, embraces, and whispered words.

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

Like a great many others, I can say this: I’m sorry she’s gone, but I’m glad to have seen her.

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