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Washington Ballet is struggling with empty seats and a $3 million debt. What will turn it around?

The Washington Ballet’s artistic director, Julie Kent (right, facing camera), with her dancers in the studio. (The Washington Ballet)

Two years after replacing its successful, longtime artistic director with a celebrated ballerina who had never run a company, the Washington Ballet is struggling to close a $3 million debt and attract audiences to its dramatic change in programming.

The company has a different look under former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent, who this fall began her third season as artistic director. Four popular dancers left recently, including Brooklyn Mack, an internationally known artist and audience favorite. The company’s repertoire has shifted from the playful, quirky sensibility of past director-choreographer Septime Webre to the high-end standards that fueled Kent’s ABT career.

Ballet star Julie Kent has big plans for Washington Ballet

Hiring Kent was part of the board of directors’ overall plan to reinvent the Washington Ballet as a bigger, better company — a national treasure, guided by a star, with the elite repertoire and dancers to rival the world’s great ballet institutions.

“We do believe in the star power of Julie,” says Washington Ballet board chairman Jean-Marie Fernandez. “She is taking what she has learned for 30 years to develop her dancers and bring that to the stage.”

So far, though, it appears that Kent’s fame has not attracted enough ticket buyers and donors to fund the new vision of the Washington Ballet, with more and better dancers performing the “Great Books” of ballet. It’s a big risk, because the transformation will be costly and take years. And then there are the questions no one seems to have asked in the planning stages: Does the public want this kind of company, and will enough donors fund it?

“We intend to be recognized as not just the professional ballet company of the nation’s capital, but as one of the premier companies not only of the country, but of the world,” says board vice chairman Michael Goldstein. “That’s the goal the board has embraced. And then we sought to recruit an artistic director who could take us in that direction.”

In pursuing that path, Kent and her husband, Washington Ballet associate artistic director Victor Barbee, who was formerly ABT’s second-in-command, have scored several early artistic successes. Their gifted coaching was clear in a nuanced staging of “Giselle,” the Romantic-era, full-length ballet, and in strong showings of works by current leading light Alexei Ratmansky and ballets from the 20th-century canon, including Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” Antony Tudor’s “Jardin Aux Lilas” and Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides.” The directors also have insisted on live music, a classy but costly element. (The company’s next program, “Contemporary Masters,” starts Oct. 31 at the Harman Center for the Arts. )

Yet since Kent took over, the dancers have faced the unusual sight of empty seats at some performances and, on occasion, near-empty houses. In interviews with more than a dozen ballet insiders and observers, many questioned whether such an abrupt identity change — becoming a broad-based company like the ones that come routinely to the Kennedy Center — suits the Washington Ballet, and whether the transition was thought through. Others wonder whether the ballet’s financial health will rebound.

“Septime was a showman . . . and he had found a niche. A niche that anything the Kennedy Center was bringing in wasn’t competitive with,” says the Washington Ballet’s former interim executive director, Shakira Segundo. “Now they’re in competition with the Kennedy Center. It is a steep curve. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s just a heck of a hill to climb.”

'At the end of the day, to thine own self be true' 

The drastic artistic changes reflect the differences between Kent and Webre. They are polar opposites: Webre is the extroverted choreographer whose creations — such as a witty, trippy “Alice (in Wonderland)” and the flamboyant “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises” — mirrored his high energy. Kent is the conscientious ballet eminence and teacher, devoted to passing on the prestigious tradition she embodied at ABT as its longest-tenured ballerina. 

Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre turned company into a big tent

Webre, who led the Washington Ballet for 17 years and is now directing the Hong Kong Ballet, established a populist, of-the-moment style, building on the course set by founder Mary Day, who also favored modernists and works created in-house. Kent aims to turn the 26-dancer troupe into what it has never been: a repertory company equal to such big guns as ABT, New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, which are many times larger. 

Kent also wants to present the same ballets as the major companies, and she is certain the public wants that, too.

“If you look at all the great companies in the world, the repertoire is very similar among all of them. Everybody’s doing classical ballet, contemporary ballet and Ratmansky and [Christopher] Wheeldon,” Kent said in a recent interview in her office on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “That’s what we want, and that’s what the audience wants, and that’s what the dancers want.”

Under Webre, the troupe sold out the Kennedy Center and other venues. In Kent’s first season, the turnabout in style and offerings caused ticket revenue to drop 22 percent, according to tax returns.

Another cost, more difficult to calculate, is the loss of a consequential artist — a dancer who is not just any dancer.

“I about fell out of my chair” on hearing the news that Mack would not be returning for a 10th season, says Natalie von Seelen, a member of the Washington Ballet’s Women’s Committee, a fundraising group. “Brooklyn is the heart and soul of that company. It’s not only his dancing, but who he is as a person and what he does for the community. He is a wonderful role model in a town that needs them.”

Mack left the company after failed negotiations over his salary and workload.

In a highly selective, conservative art form that struggles with diversity, Mack, who is African American, helped the Washington Ballet look more like its community. The charismatic 32-year-old also had an unusual ability to connect with audiences. 

Mack mentored youngsters in the company’s outreach programs in D.C. public schools and at THEARC in Anacostia, and makes guest appearances in Moscow, Paris and London. In 2015, he partnered Misty Copeland, the famed ABT ballerina, in a Washington Ballet coup that had the dance world — and beyond — buzzing: Copeland, at Webre’s invitation, made her American debut as Odette/Odile in the company’s first production of “Swan Lake,” in which she and Mack shattered that ballet’s all-white stereotype.

Misty Copeland to make ‘Swan Lake’ debut with Washington Ballet

“How do you let that guy go, when diversity is an important part of where we are in D.C., and what he represents in the world of ballet?” says Maureen Berk, special projects chairman of the Women’s Committee. 

Dancers Jonathan Jordan, Francesca Dugarte and Venus Villa also left recently — Jordan and Dugarte for BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio; Villa for Hong Kong Ballet.

Mack, reached recently after a rehearsal with New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck for the Fall for Dance Festival in New York, says that last season he was denied a number of requests to make guest appearances with other companies, as he’d routinely done in the past. The season also took a toll on his body, as he was asked to cover for injured dancers while shouldering his scheduled roles and rehearsing several unfamiliar ballets simultaneously.

“It was just breaking me,” he says. “Of course, accidents happen and people go out, but the planning was not adequate.”

Kent says that she tried to spread out the casting and that she let Mack dance elsewhere as often as she could. He was offered a generous contract, she says, and she’s disappointed that he has left.  

“But that’s okay,” she says. “A dancer is entitled to feel how they feel and then choose to do what they want with their career.”

Asked about her vision for the company, Kent says that she was not looking for a job when board members approached her but that once convinced — it was also a homecoming for the Potomac, Md., native — she offered to shape the company according to the only model she knew: ABT. 

“At the end of the day, to thine own self be true,” she says. “That’s what I am able to share. And my experience has allowed me to be under the tutelage of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Agnes de Mille, Rudolf Nureyev . . . ” She lists more ballet greats, looking around at the photos from her performing years that cover her office walls. “That’s what I have to give.” 

'It takes time to build anything that lasts'

In 2014, the Washington Ballet board drew up a 10-year strategic plan with a goal of being “a nationally recognized company among the top ballet companies in the U.S.,” with 38 to 40 dancers on its roster by 2023. 

“We wanted excellence, we wanted good organization, we wanted dancers who were really trained beautifully,” says board member Sylvia de Leon, who, as the past board chairman, oversaw the strategic plan and hired Kent and Barbee. “And we’ve gotten a huge amount of that. But how are we going to distinguish ourselves from all these companies that come to Washington — that continues to evolve.”

It’s unclear whether the company can compete against those imports. “I don’t think that has been a business strategy per se, to directly compete that way,” de Leon says. “I think that Julie’s selection of the programming has really been based on her view of how the audience needs to be educated in seeing these works. And how her dancers need to be educated in doing these works.”

The transition has strained the nonprofit company’s budget. Kent has a five-year contract that pays her $260,000 a year, 40 percent more than Webre earned the previous year, tax returns show. She and her family live rent-free in a house the ballet owns that had previously generated rental income. The company also paid Webre a $180,000 severance package. 

Kent’s artistic choices have increased expenses, which rose almost $1 million, to $13.2 million for the 2016-2017 season, tax documents show. While costs increased, ticket sales dropped 22 percent. 

The finances improved in the 2017-2018 season, says Washington Ballet executive director Michael Mael. (Documents showing that season’s figures aren’t publicly available yet.) 

“Our expenses largely leveled out, and we’ve had a significant increase in contributed income as we rebuild our board and attract new donors,” he says. But ticket sales won’t be back to the pre-Kent era.  

“We are a very different company than we were two years ago,” Mael says. “That takes time to find its hold with the audience.”  

To bring in revenue, the ballet will present six more “Nutcracker” shows this year, Mael says, and lower-level ballet classes have been added at the ballet’s school, the Washington School of Ballet.

Mael has beefed up the administration, hiring Brae Blackley for a new position of managing director of external affairs. Since Kent started, there is a new head of the school, and new marketing and fundraising executives. 

 New leaders, new ideas — that's to be expected. But do they have a sensitive view of the community, or are the failed negotiations with Mack part of a myopic perspective? 

In the Webre years, most audience members "were not ballet fans. They were the general public who came to see a show," Segundo says. "He appealed to those who didn't have a background in ballet before, or weren't ballet aficionados. Now they're throwing them into the deep end, saying, 'Love it.' "

Kent is asking for patience. 

“What I’m doing at the Washington Ballet is all I know how to do,” she says. “I am trying to take this company to a new level. It’s not about entertainment. Now, it takes time to build anything that lasts. And it takes time for the whole engine and inner workings and administration to really coalesce and come together and move forward.”

She adds, “We hope that the idea of building something great will be an excitement, will be thrilling, will be something that the audience here looks forward to, and can’t wait for the next opportunity to absorb the growth and evolution of the company.”