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When the boss is a ballerina: Julie Kent on balancing Washington Ballet top job and family

Former prima ballerina Julie Kent sits for a portrait in New York, NY on March 17th, 2016. Kent is retiring from the American Ballet Theater after a 29-year career to become director of the Washington Ballet. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)

"You'll note," says Julie Kent, with a wry smile, "that I get the second hug, after the dog."

The former ballerina has just walked into her Upper West Side apartment on a recent evening, closely trailing the Cavapoo puppy that spent the day with her at American Ballet Theatre. They’re greeted with squeals from Kent’s 6-year-old daughter, Josephine, who jumps off the couch and scoops Winky up before flinging her arms around her mother’s slim legs. Dancing the dog backward on his hind feet, Josephine skips off to play Wii with a classmate and the family’s nanny.

Kent’s son, William, 11, slips away from the piano to give Kent a quick squeeze.

Juggling puppies, playdates and piano lessons along with a career isn’t unusual for a working mother, but Kent’s active family life sets her apart from most ballerinas. She retired from the stage last June, after 29 years of dancing with American Ballet Theatre, and became artistic director of ABT’s summer intensive programs, which take place in five cities. This meant even more time on the road, away from her two children and her husband, ABT Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee.

Her new job promises even bigger changes for Kent and her family. Kent will become the artistic director of the Washington Ballet this summer, taking over from Septime Webre, who's stepping down after 17 years. Kent, 46, will oversee the 21-member company, as well as the Washington School of Ballet and its community outreach programs. The board wants her and Barbee, 61, who will be the company's associate artistic director, to build the troupe up to 40 dancers over the next several years. For the coming season, Kent is hoping to hire a couple more ballerinas, with a view to programming Frederick Ashton's serene 1946 ballet, "Symphonic Variations," next year.

Kent plans a complete overhaul of the Washington Ballet repertoire, which has featured Webre’s works and those of contemporary choreographers. Within a few seasons, Kent says, she wants the company to dance such elite full-length ballets as Ashton’s “Cinderella” and John Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Commissioning a new creation by Alexei Ratmansky, one of the world’s leading ballet choreographers, is also on her mind.

These are ambitious plans, but it’s conceivable that Kent can realize them, with adequate funds and dancers, and careful preparations. What’s certain is that she will be busy.

But here's her hope: If everything goes as planned, her move to Washington will mean a great second career and a more relaxed family life.

The new job’s best perk: weekends. She and Barbee will work Monday through Friday for the first time in their professional lives. (ABT’s workweek is Tuesday-Saturday, meaning Sunday is the only day the family has together.) Their workdays will end at 6 p.m., rather than at 7 with ABT. The two travel separately some 10 weeks of the year — she to audition students, he to accompany ABT on tour — meaning more splintering of the family.

Josephine’s summer birthday falls right in the middle of ABT’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which meant she had a few birthday parties in the ladies’ dressing room between matinee and evening performances of, say, “Romeo and Juliet.” “Okay, Juliet’s gotta go get ready now,” Kent would call out, reaching for her makeup and costume amid the melee of a Barbie-festooned cake and balloons and presents.

Kent takes two crosstown buses each morning with her kids to get them to school. She’s hoping to live within walking distance of their D.C. schools, in a house where Josephine can have her longed-for garden.

Long blonde hair flying, the girl bounces into the kitchen for a bag of frozen peas. She injured her pinky toe a few days ago, and she reminds Kent they haven’t seen the doctor yet.

“How ’bout tomorrow, Mom?” Josephine asks, clamping the peas around her foot. She flashes her dimples, but the look in her eye means business.

“I have to see,” says Kent, her voice a little less confident than her daughter’s as she considers meetings and a photo shoot and an evening event she and Barbee have to attend. “We’ll try.”

The dog changes the subject. He trots in with a stolen sandwich, and the child scampers after him.

ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, clowning around with the couple in Barbee’s office at the company’s headquarters, summed up his feelings about their departure this way: “I’m losing my right arm and my right leg!” He hopped around on one foot, exclaiming in mock-horror, “It’s kind of hard to balance!”

If there’s a little anxiety underneath the jest, it’s understandable. ABT’s narrow hallways, dim offices and no-frills rehearsal studios at 890 Broadway may be a little shabby — you could kindly call them homey — but the atmosphere is pleasantly mellow and intimate. This isn’t a glitzy space; it’s a cozy one. It’s easy to imagine that the loss of two beloved, longtime pillars of the institution will leave a void.

Kent and Barbee bring a wealth of experience to Washington Ballet that’s surely unparalleled. Both have danced alongside such peerless artists as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova and have rehearsed with most of the major choreographers of modern ballet history, including Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Kenneth MacMillan, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris and Ratmansky.

In his 13 years as McKenzie’s assistant, helping to cast ballets and to coach and counsel dancers, Barbee has helped shape the company’s look and has been a custodian of its repertoire. Kent, the longest-serving ballerina in ABT’s history, with a career that has included film roles (“Dancers” and “Center Stage”) and major prizes (the Erik Bruhn Prize, Prix Benois de la Danse), is viewed with awe by company members. But that’s not only because of her fame. It’s because of the way she treats people, kindness being a disarming attribute in a woman who possesses dance-world celebrity, prestige and the looks of a Botticelli goddess, all of which could easily inflate an ego.

“A director leads by how they behave, and she’s just a great example,” says Stanton Welch, the choreographer and artistic director of the Houston Ballet, who has created works for ABT that featured Kent. “She really has every attribute that you need” as an artistic director, he says. “She’s a very warm and giving person, and she’s tasteful and strong-willed.”

“She puts artistry before everything else,” says Angel Corella, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, who spent much of his career as an ABT principal dancing with Kent. “She used her technique to express something,” rather than as an end in itself. But being able to motivate dancers of different abilities is just as important as artistic convictions, he adds, and this is where he sees Kent excelling.

“You have to become almost a psychologist,” Corella says. “Julie’s very sweet, but at the same time she can say what she wants. She’s a very level person.”

After she teaches ABT company class one morning, Kent offers a hug and friendly words to each dancer. She connects easily with students and professionals in the hallways as she offers a tour of the studios that have been her home since she was 16.

Dressed in a slouchy orange sweater and jeans tucked into cowboy boots, Kent has an artsy, boho-chic vibe. She wears little makeup; her long brown hair is loose. Winky precedes her, a blur of wiggling caramel fluff at the end of a leash, his tags and hardware jingling.

We walk through the darkened dancers’ lounge, with its sturdy youth-hostel sofas and industrial-green walls. We peek into the studio where the teenage Kent auditioned before Baryshnikov, the artistic director at the time.

The audition didn’t go well. The room was packed with “at least 100 kids,” she remembers. She wore her pointe shoes, a mistake. All the other girls wore supple leather slippers that gave them an advantage. With her less flexible footwear, Kent struggled with her balances. Standing right in front of Baryshnikov, she tipped over in one of the most basic steps (grand plie in first position, a squat that should look smooth and controlled) and had to put her hand on the floor.

Now that I’ve flubbed the audition, she told herself, I might as well enjoy it. And she did.

Afterward, Baryshnikov asked Kent how she thought she did.

“Well,” she recalls saying, “some things needed work and some things were okay.”

If her technique was imperfect in those early years, the cheerful way she got through the test and her clear self-assessment revealed something important: fortitude. Kent could cope.

Baryshnikov offered her an apprenticeship on the spot.

We pass by the small studio where Kent rehearsed the tense, psycho-sexual ballet “Pillar of Fire” with Tudor, shortly before the legendary choreographer died in 1987. She points out the room where, at the end of a long day of learning other ballets, she practiced the starring role in “Giselle” for the first time.

“I had a really late rehearsal, like at 6 p.m., and I was rehearsing that entrance over and over where Giselle comes of her house and has a big solo,” she says. Her coach, the late Georgina Parkinson, “kept saying ‘More! More energy!’” She laughs and rolls her eyes at the memory of gutting it out when she wanted to collapse.

Kent opens her metal locker in the girls’ locker room, which looks and smells like any locker room anywhere, except for the scattered pointe shoes and practice tutus. She has had the same locker for 30 years, carefully chosen to be far from such intimidating principal ballerinas of the 1980s as Martine Van Hamel and Cynthia Gregory.

Upstairs, ABT’s education department occupies a former rehearsal studio with a scarred wood floor. Here, in a clutter of workstations and bookshelves, is where Kent reports each day to prepare her summer teaching programs. She proudly points out her small desk, with its red and gilt leather inlay. It once belonged to ABT founder Lucia Chase.

Kent’s deep connections with the institution and its artists is what finally compelled her to take the Washington Ballet job. She rejected it at first, when the search committee approached her. She didn’t want to leave New York or ABT, didn’t want to uproot her kids. Then she realized that in moving away, she could build on those very connections that mattered most to her, spending more time with her family, and with dancers to whom she could pass on her experience.

“What interests me is to be able to share my knowledge,” she says. “I really feel an obligation and a responsibility to share it with all these young dancers. This is their time and they need it. You can do that in many ways, but if you become an artistic director of a company, you can do that in the most comprehensive way.

“As Victor said, now you’re a guardian, you’re protecting what you’ve spent your life in, helping it flourish,” she continues. “I felt so much love from the people I worked with in my career, and that’s an important ingredient I have to share.”

Later that evening, in the spacious, antique-filled apartment where she and Barbee have lived for 20 years, the couple reflect on the new roles that await them. Having carefully considered them, with the studious approach of seasoned classicists, they feel their upcoming jobs are a good fit. Barbee, soft-spoken, his North Carolina drawl still rolling after more than 40 years in Manhattan, says the assistant position is where he’s happiest, as he’s not comfortable being the center of attention.

“That’s probably why, as a performer, I gravitated to the acting roles,” he says, running a hand through his silver hair. “That way it’s the character, it’s not you.”

He’d rather cede the spotlight to Kent. “Whatever questions Julie has, I’ll answer clearly and thoughtfully,” he continues, “and whatever decision she wants to make, I’ll support her wholeheartedly. That’s how I’ve helped Kevin all these years.”

Asked how things might be different between them when Barbee starts reporting to his wife, Kent lets out a shriek of laughter.

“I can’t say,” Barbee mutters in a stage whisper, grinning at her. “The boss is here.”

In a way, Kent says, there won’t be much of a change. “As a ballerina,” she says, “I was always the boss. I was the boss of the performance.”

Barbee gets up to refill a guest’s glass. “You want some water, Mom?” he asks Kent, bending down to her and flashing another grin. “Oh, sorry: Boss?”