Arts / Performing Arts

Dance Icon Julie Kent Opens Up On Helping to Lead the Houston Ballet, the Real Beauty of Dance and the Power of Teachers

The PaperCity Interview

BY // 09.13.23

You must believe in enchantment if you’ve ever experienced a spellbinding performance at the ballet, where grace, intensity and music merge. The glorious fluidity and explosive energy of the dancer seem to come from nowhere — to just be. But that assumption would belie the years of immeasurable hard work and dedication — love, really — that transform a dancer’s gift and passion into the highest expression of technique and artistry.

Julie Kent, one of the most iconic, exquisite and beloved ballet dancers of her generation, embodies all those qualities and more.

Kent has joined Stanton Welch as co-directors of Houston Ballet. After a storied 30-year career as American Ballet Theatre’s longest dancing ballerina and seven seasons as artistic director of The Washington Ballet, she is installed at Houston Ballet now. She’s not “resident” or “visiting.” She is here.

Houston Ballet Co-Artistic Director Julie Kent (Photo by Dean Alexander. Courtesy The Washington Ballet)
Houston Ballet Co-Artistic Director Julie Kent (Photo by Dean Alexander. Courtesy The Washington Ballet)

Barely four weeks after her arrival, Kent found time to sit down with me at Houston Ballet’s impressive Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance. The contemporary multi-story building houses nine dance studios, a Dance Lab theater and facilities for its prestigious Houston Ballet Academy. The day I visited, the first floor was alive with the activity of students from the Summer Intensive Intermediate 2 class about to perform for parents and grandparents, many arriving with flowers for their young ballerinas.

A few floors up, Kent glides into a conference room, warm and welcoming, dressed in soft hues of vanilla and cream. With her signature long, almost strawberry-blond hair, delicate features and frame, and swan-like neck, her appearance is reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance painting by Botticelli. Taking her place at the head of a long table, she is composed, the portrait of a ballerina at rest. But the vivacity, curiosity, enthusiasm and enormous store of experience that animate her conversation make me wonder if it’s possible to dance while seated.

We discuss the art form to which she has dedicated her life, her vision for the Houston Ballet of the future, and her expectation of life in her new city, where she has moved with her husband and two children.

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It made sense for us to open our conversation with her decades-long relationship with Stanton Welch. Houston Ballet audiences who saw Welch’s Clear in March may not know it was originally an American Ballet Theatre commission. In its 2001 world premiere, Kent danced the female lead, which Welch had created for her. She reprised the role in 2014, this time in Houston, in a one-night-only tribute honoring the retirement of Houston Ballet first soloist Kelly Myernick.

Kent and Welch referred to each other as “partners” in launching a new chapter for Houston Ballet. As partnering is such an essential element in ballet, it’s a term they’re unlikely to use lightly.

Julie Kent tells us more:

How do you and Stanton Welch envision arranging your roles as partners in a co-artistic directorship?

Julie Kent: It’s fitting that we have used the word partner so much, because we’re both dancers. I have relied on and loved and cherished the many partnerships I’ve had. That’s how I work best. It’s not “You do this, and I do that.” We do it together.

Leading an organization is really hard, and it can be very lonely. But feeling that partnership again, that support — this is a different scenario and I’m excited about it.

In arranging responsibilities, will you each have your own “territories,” so to speak, or are you anticipating a collaboration that will require agreement in various areas?

JK: I’m approaching my first season here as an opportunity to learn from everyone and bring some well-thought-out ideas to the table. I’m not somebody who comes in and wants to impose — I mean, Houston Ballet is an extremely successful organization. Stanton’s been here for 20 years, and the Ballet has experienced tremendous growth in every way.

His success and attributes speak for themselves. There’s so much for me to learn from this organization and the way it works, and I have my own experience to bring to that. I’m eager to share and contribute in all ways possible.

Julie Kent and Stanton Welch_Photo by Fulton Davenport-Jubilee 2015
Houston Ballet Artistic Directors Julie Kent and Stanton Welch AM (Photo by Fulton Davenport. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

You are known for your brilliance and grace in the broad classical repertoire of narrative “story ballet” – Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle and so many others. But you also performed in more contemporary pieces, such as Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite. Do you have a vision for Houston Ballet in terms of programming between story ballet and the more abstract ballet coming from many contemporary choreographers?

JK: One of the great achievements of Houston Ballet in the last two decades is the focus on making it a really coveted commission. Stanton has not only been prolific in creating his own works. He has invited such a range of choreographers and new works to come here. Houston Ballet was the first North American company to do John Neumeier’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 2014.

The program is a unique, dynamic, and interesting mix of new commissions and classical full-length ballets, and also repertoire of the 19th, 20th and 21st century that is important for the education of both the artist and the audience.

The approach that I took at The Washington Ballet was exactly that mix. I commissioned 26 new works from both emerging and very well-established choreographers. Full-length ballets as well as presentations of works by Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. Frederick Ashton. Kenneth McMillan. All of Balanchine. All of the choreographers that shaped and influenced our art form to where it is today.

I see classical ballet on a continuum. It’s always looking back, looking forward. A work that premiered in 1997 can still look and feel completely relevant in the 21st century, because of the artists that are bringing it to life. They are of this time, so their opinions, their interests, their motivations affect the performance and its impact.

What role does programming have in maintaining and growing the audience as well as the company?

JK: What you want first is an audience that will go with you wherever you take them. They trust Houston Ballet to take them somewhere they either should go, need to go, or want to go. And in the end, whether it’s their favorite or not, they’ve experienced something. They’ve learned something. The number one thing is that Houston Ballet’s audience trust and believe in dance to change someone’s life.

There’s an element of education in showing people that ballet is so many things. It’s not just Swan Lake and Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. And it’s not just Balanchine or Ashton. It’s a very vibrant and alive art form that’s continuing to grow.

I love that answer. Would you share some of the bases on which you plan to select new works?

JK: Thankfully, Houston Ballet is in a position where it programs several years out, so it’s not a ‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ Rather, it’s a two to six year time frame. It’s a very complex and thought-out process, but as with anything, things change. The Houston Ballet premiere of Jiří Kylián’s Bespoke on the program for this season is my contribution.

I am now joining a much bigger company, so my approach is obviously going to shift. I have the luxury of coming to a very educated audience, with a very well-established repertoire, and with a community and an academy that has enjoyed a great history of dance.

And it feels like there’s no ceiling. The sky’s the limit. It’s inspiring to think big about world premieres and first North American premieres and those sorts of things. And the dancers also are extremely established and committed and versatile.

Julie Kent in Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (Photo by Marty Sohl. Courtesy Julie Kent)
Julie Kent in Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (Photo by Marty Sohl. Courtesy Julie Kent)

Alastair Macaulay, New York Times chief dance critic from 2007 to 2018, told Washington, D.C.’s City Paper last year: “Under Kent, I was immediately impressed by changes for the better in the company’s classical style. The company was evidently acquiring a coherent, single vision of classical style.” Would you say that’s an accurate statement?

JK: My interpretation of what Alastair saw is that everybody was on the same page and working towards the same goal.

I approach my work as a director very much the way I approach my work as a dancer. It’s a constant building process. You don’t just become a ballerina and a swan queen. It’s a daily commitment to improvement and building on what you learned yesterday, what you learned last season, what you learned two seasons ago. With all the repertoire, whether you’re doing Balanchine’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue or Ashton’s Birthday Offering, you’re constantly developing specificity in the command of your mind-body relationship, so you’re able to speak the language, the movement language of the choreographer as fluently as possible.

I taught class regularly at least twice a week at Washington Ballet, and I’m teaching twice a week at Houston Ballet. I’m very, very detailed about fingertips to toe tips and the line of the body. And it’s evident the kind of clarity that I want in the dancing.

Perhaps more than any other art form, ballet has been associated with beauty. Grace, loveliness, fluidity — for 30 years you personified those qualities. A wonderful story is that the Kirov prima ballerina Natalya Markova, who defected to the West in 1970 and danced with American Ballet Theatre, left this note on your dresser: “Someone once said that beauty can save the world. What a great responsibility you have.”

In these days, ballet, like other art forms, seems to be focusing on the abstract and in breaking boundaries. Does beauty still have a place in contemporary ballet? Are there other precepts and values that equal beauty in ballet or have superseded it?

JK: What I see as a singular beauty in dance is the artist’s willingness to be completely vulnerable on a stage. That is beautiful.

As Misha (Mikhail Baryshnikov) said, ‘When you step on the stage, you bring with you every decision you’ve made in your life.’ You’re bringing your whole body and whole self to an audience full of people. It doesn’t have to look a certain way. It’s how it makes you feel. That’s what’s so captivating about ballets. That they can look so different.

Tutus and tiaras — that’s a very, very dated and small idea of what ballet is. Beauty in ballet is that willingness to share for the sole purpose of making somebody feel something that they’ve never felt before.

Houston Ballet Co-Artistic Director Julie Kent (Photo by Jayme Thornton. Courtesy The Washington Ballet)
Houston Ballet co-artistic director Julie Kent (Photo by Jayme Thornton. Courtesy The Washington Ballet)

Thinking about forming the next generation of dancers, how do you develop talent that’s diverse?

JK: Ballet is for everyone. Diversity is vitality and ownership. A lot of people don’t know about ballet. But if they do know about it, they should feel it belongs to them.

Houston Ballet reaches out through their community programs to kids who probably wouldn’t see ballet otherwise. Maybe their parents don’t know about it — I mean, my father had never seen a ballet. Houston Ballet is reaching these kids, and then teaching them that ballet is theirs to own. It’s theirs to study, investigate, explore and use as a pathway to who knows where? It could be to a stage. It could be backstage. It could be to a boardroom or medical school.

In terms of developing the next generation, do you work with the assumption that there will be increasingly larger roles for male dancers in new choreography? Will the recent overlap in the vocabularies of ballet, modern and jazz dance attract more boys to ballet class?

JK: I saw our summer intensive performance, and they were tons of boys who were so talented. Houston Ballet Academy has a notoriously strong young men’s program, boys program and professional program. But we can always use more of everyone.

Some new choreographers’ combine different styles, and some don’t. Stanton Welch, Silas Farley, Alexei Ratmansky are classical ballet choreographers. Justin Peck, on the other hand, has developed his own kind of movement language, that has elements of different rhythms that aren’t typical in ballet. It expands what people think ballet is.

Do you have any words for young people who dream to become a great dancer like you and carry ballet forward into a new generation?

JK: Life is just the time you have. We live in a country where we’re privileged to be able to spend that time doing a lot of different things. You really need to want to spend all your time dancing — that’s first.

Embrace the process. If you’re focused solely on the end product, or where you think you’re going to go, you’re missing out on the most valuable part of being a dancer. What I valued and learned from the most was what I experienced with people along the way. The real reward wasn’t becoming the principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. It was what we shared and did together.

Dance is a very, very, very competitive field. There’s way more talent than there is opportunity. But what you learn in the ballet school studio sets you up for anything in life.

Julie Kent as Odile in Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor. Courtesy Julie Kent)
Julie Kent as Odile in Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor. Courtesy Julie Kent)

Throughout all the interesting thoughts she shared, nothing makes Kent’s eyes sparkle more than reminiscences of her first and probably most influential ballet teacher Hortensia Fonseca at the Academy of Maryland Youth Ballet. Touching the dainty pendant around her neck lightly, Kent realizes it’s a small disk and not the gold ballet shoes Mrs. Fonseca had worn for 60 years and given to her.

In the disk inscribed in script is the single word — Mom. “I’m wearing my ‘Mom’ necklace today,” Julie Kent says. And she beams.

Houston Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is currently running through this Sunday, September 17. For more information, go here.

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