Julie Kent, the new artistic director of the Washington Ballet, presided over the company’s 40th-anniversary celebration Friday at the Kennedy Center. (Theo Kossenas/Media 4 Artists)

Her gowns almost upstaged the dancing, as Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent emceed the company’s 40th Anniversary Celebration Friday. 

Appearing in some serious red-carpet plumage, the breathtakingly lovely former ballerina was the focal point and chief reward of the event in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Not that the dancing wasn’t fine enough, but the real star of the show was the new director, who swept onstage three times to applause and appreciative sighs, and read tributes to the company’s late founder, Mary Day, and to past director Septime Webre, who led the Washington Ballet for 17 years.

Kent hailed her arrival as “introducing a new era of ballet in Washington,” then shifted the spotlight to the company members: “The story will be told as it should be, by our dancers.” They performed two full ballets from the archives: “Fives,” a work of bristling clarity by Choo San Goh, the Singaporean choreographer who imparted a cool, streamlined style to the Washington Ballet in the 1970s and ’80s; and the earthy, Cuban-inspired “Juanita y Alicia,” the first work Webre created for the company. Pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and other classics and an excerpt from George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” followed.

Recognition of past achievements, including historic tours to China and Cuba, was earnest and sweet. American Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, one of Day’s most famous students, was in the standing-room-only audience, along with many other former students and company members. In a video interview, McKenzie spoke movingly of Day’s moxie in building her company: “She did it from scratch, and she did it right. And she changed my life.”

Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent has D.C.-area roots, having studied at Maryland Youth Ballet. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

But amid the affection and nostalgia, Kent had a strong statement of her own to make. As she introduced each segment of the nearly three-hour salute to the company’s history, Kent led the audience members elegantly — and cannily — to an undeniable conclusion: She stood before them as the visionary queen of the Washington Ballet’s future.

A graceful woman in a great dress can be utterly spellbinding, as this audience discovered. Each floor-sweeping frock (all by Reem Acra) was more spectacular than the last. Wearing pearly white, then royal blue and finally a blinding splash of gold on black, Kent produced a very Anne-Hathaway-hosting-the-Oscars kind of effect. From the reaction, it seemed she had seized the hearts and imagination of the crowd just as she had while she was a star with American Ballet Theatre: with her beauty, her charm and her skill at getting her point across. 

What was that point? Kent all but confirmed that she and her husband, Washington Ballet Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, aim to model the chamber-size troupe on ABT. That is where both Kent and Barbee enjoyed long and distinguished careers. In her final speech of the evening, Kent recalled bidding farewell to her home in Potomac and to her teachers at Maryland Youth Ballet when she joined ABT about 30 years ago, at age 16. In the career that followed, she said, she learned about “technical clarity and finesse, and the creative process” from such ABT eminences as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and so on.

“As a guardian of the art form that I love so dearly, I’m committed to creating a similar environment at the Washington Ballet,” Kent told the audience. 

She vowed to return live music to the company, an excellent goal that was met with sustained applause. And she announced that Ethan Stiefel, the former ABT principal and choreographer of the short-lived “Flesh and Bone” cable-TV dance drama, will create her first commissioned work. It will premiere May 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, alongside two 20th-century masterpieces: Tudor’s “Lilac Garden” and Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.”

It’s a risky choice. Stiefel, who had a three-year stint as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, is relatively new to making dances. But he’s also a close friend. Kent has a wide net of high-profile ballet friends, and she has pressed a few into service for the Washington Ballet so far, including the superb Ratmansky, whose “Seven Sonatas” the company will perform in April. Kent’s contacts list will likely prove a source of revelation in the months and years to come.

But there’s a world of difference between Kent’s smallish regional troupe and her former artistic home. For 17 years, the Washington Ballet dancers have produced the punchy energy and freewheeling contours of Webre’s choreography. It remains to be seen if Kent can elicit from them the sophistication needed for her coming season of classics and contemporary masterworks. On Friday, not surprisingly, the dancers looked most comfortable in Webre’s windblown, sensual “Juanita y Alicia.” It prompted the evening’s lone standing ovation. This poignant work, inspired by Webre’s Cuban mother and aunt and their island lore, offered the most luxurious experience, with Cuban songs performed live by a marvelous onstage band. 

In the classical excerpts, only the virtuosic Brooklyn Mack was able to free himself from a sense of studied care. Kent has only had a precious few weeks to work with her new charges. After the customary run of Webre’s “The Nutcracker,” her first big production will be “Giselle” in March. That’s when we’ll witness what happens when Kent is behind the scenes and her dancers are in the spotlight.