It wasn’t the way she had planned it, but ballerina Julie Kent was treated to an affectionate farewell on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage Saturday night even though she hadn’t danced a step.
An injured calf kept the American Ballet Theatre star from what was to have been her final Washington performance before retiring this summer after a 29-year career. Substituting for Kent, Gillian Murphy gave a crystalline performance in the title role in “Cinderella,” but there was an elegant coda to come.
After her curtain call, Murphy graciously offered her bouquet to Kent as ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie led his willowy veteran dancer onstage in her boots for a post-performance tribute.
“We danced for her tonight, in her honor,” McKenzie told the audience, as Kent stood beside him beaming, wearing a black lace dress. “Washington can claim Julie as the local girl made good on the world stage,” he continued, noting that Kent, who grew up in Potomac, earned her place among ballet’s eminences by “dancing virtually the entire canon of classical ballet and imbuing it with radiant beauty.” By this time, Kent was wiping away tears as she bowed to the crowd, which was on its feet and applauding along with the “Cinderella” cast standing behind her.
Those lovely few minutes contained a good deal more feeling than the ballet that preceded them. It wasn’t the dancers’ fault. The flatness in this rendition of Frederick Ashton’s choreography was a problem of pacing. The ballet cried out for a firm hand to direct it from a point of view of dramatic energy.
Where theatrical excitement was lacking, technical precision was abundant. Murphy was a sympathetic heroine who conveyed the quiet strength of an unhappy girl sustained by dreams of love. Given a chance to express herself, finally, at the ball, she whirled around the stage in a series of turns as seemingly effortless as it was dazzling. Marcelo Gomes was her gallant prince, with enough glamour quotient to wake up the production with his entrance alone. Kenneth Easter and Thomas Forster as the clownish stepsisters en travesti added comic texture to an otherwise bland atmosphere. The orchestra didn’t help much with its tame approach to the Prokofiev score.
We returned from the second intermission to the concluding third act, which featured some stepsister slapstick, a fair amount of strolling around and well-mannered pageantry, yet little for Murphy and Gomes to do but look into each other’s eyes. Fairy glitter floated down prettily behind them, the only nod to magic.