Julie Kent, one of the most celebrated American ballerinas of her generation, who retired from the stage last summer after a 29-year career at American Ballet Theatre, has been appointed the Washington Ballet’s new artistic director, the company announced Monday.
Kent’s position is effective July 1. She will take over from Septime Webre, who announced last month that he is stepping down in June after 17 years at the helm.
Kent, 46, will oversee all aspects of the Washington Ballet organization, including its 21-member company and trainee programs; its training arm, the Washington School of Ballet, with more than 1,000 students; and its community engagement activities, such as the satellite program in Anacostia and offerings in the District’s public schools.
Kent’s husband, Victor Barbee, 61, will become the Washington Ballet’s associate artistic director. Also a former principal dancer at ABT, he has been that company’s associate artistic director since 2003. Kent and Barbee will move to the Washington area with their two children, ages 11 and 6.
“It just couldn’t be a better package,” said Washington Ballet Board Chair Sylvia A. de Leon. She praised Kent’s “vision, energy and connection to the dancers” and Barbee’s long tenure in ABT’s leadership and 40 years of experience with that company, which he joined in 1975.
In a recent phone interview, Kent said she wanted to set the artistic bar higher for the company as it marks the 40th anniversary of its 1976 founding by the late Mary Day.
“We would like to build the Washington Ballet so it can take its place as an artistic jewel in the nation’s capital,” Kent said by phone from her home in New York City. “There’s no reason why it can’t be the absolute, quintessential chamber ballet company.
“There are so many artistic institutions in D.C. who reflect the artistic excellence of the city, and I would really like to build the Washington Ballet so that it is respected in that way,” she said.
At first, that was a job Kent didn’t want. When she was initially approached by the ballet, Kent said her reply was: “I’m just not interested. I love my life here, and my children and my husband love our lives here.”
What ultimately lured her were the twin attractions of taking on a leadership role — becoming one of the few women in the nation to head a ballet company — and doing so in her home town.
Kent grew up in Potomac, attended Winston Churchill High School and studied at Maryland Youth Ballet with Hortensia Fonseca and Michelle Lees. The first professional stage she performed on was the Kennedy Center Opera House, where as a child she was a supernumerary in “Coppelia,” in a production with the great stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride.
Her mother, who is the only surviving grandparent to Kent and Barbee’s children, lives in the area. That pull, and “not wanting to miss an opportunity that doesn’t come along often,” overrode her reluctance to leave a life she has adored since joining ABT’s corps de ballet in 1986, Kent said.
“We are not bringing her in for her fame,” de Leon said of Kent. “She’s so genuine and real, and what interested us is that her quality really came through. She’s very committed to the individual, whether it’s the dancer or the student. Or making sure that the school is seamless with the company.”
In the past, “we chose to invest in Septime’s work and new product,” de Leon said. With a new artistic director, the board wants to increase the company’s size and make the public more aware of the school and community involvement. According to its 2013-23 strategic plan, the organization aims to employ 40 dancers by 2023, adding at least two a year.
Kent’s career is one of rare distinction. Promoted to principal dancer at ABT in 1993, she was a favorite pick of visiting choreographers and danced as a guest artist at major companies around the world. She has starred in two movies about the ballet world: “Dancers” in 1987 and “Center Stage” in 2000. She is currently a teacher and coach for ABT and, for more than a decade, has taught master classes nationally and internationally. Last year, she was named artistic director of ABT’s 1,400-student summer intensives.
“She was a dancer of extreme dignity and taste and restrained class,” said David Hallberg, the ABT principal who joined the Washington Ballet board last year. He has danced with Kent and watched her teach at ABT. He was reached by phone in Australia. “I think the way Julie handled her career as a ballerina is the way she’ll handle her career as an artistic director.
“I’ve seen her inspire an entire room,” Hallberg added. “She’s not just relating to the ballerinas who are doing the principal roles but to the newest apprentice in the room.”
Kent said she has outlined a plan for the Washington Ballet’s 2016-17 performance season, based on the company’s existing repertoire, and an announcement should come in a few weeks. New ballets can be added only after fully assessing the dancers, she said. She saw them for the first time at a performance of the “Director’s Cut” program last month.
“I thought it showed the company beautifully,” Kent said.
“I want everybody to be inspired and to join us, and to understand that this is nothing that we’re taking lightly,” she said. “It’s a very exciting, wonderful brink of something that we’re anticipating will be an incredible experience for all of us.”