The last dance of a legendary ballerina

“When I was very young, back in Hungary in the ballet school, my teacher showed us a VHS with Julie Kent,” Zoltan Boros, a dancer with Columbia Classical Ballet, told me. “I didn’t know her, and I didn’t know much about ballet (I was around 12), but I still remember how amazing she was.”

Julie Kent is an icon. At 45-years-old she is the quintessential image of a modern American ballerina, poised and elegant with experience in spades. Her influence on modern ballet cannot be understated and her presence on stage — fragile, ephemeral, strong, beautiful, the definition of grace — is a once in a generation sort of gift.

On Saturday, June 20, Kent will give her farewell performance, 30 years after she first graced the stage as a professional. It will be her swan song with the American Ballet Theatre, a company that has supported her throughout all three decades of her dance career. Kent will be playing Juliet in the company’s production of Romeo and Juliet. If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, you will surely be watching history. I was lucky enough to steal hear away for a conversation about her career, her retirement, and her hopes for the future.

Kent auditioned for ABT in October of 1985, when Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director. He noticed her unique talent and offered the then 16-year-old from Maryland a position with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. From there she became a soloist and eventually a principal and has gone on to dance some of the most famous ballets in the world. She is renowned for her prowess at taking on dramatic dance roles. She has also gained about as much celebrity as a ballerina can. She’s starred in films, she’s championed advertising campaigns, and her image has very likely been plastered on the bedroom walls of many an aspiring dancer.

“As a young ballerina in training, I easily recall seeing Julie’s face grace the cover of countless magazines. She was, and will always be, the epitome of the strength and beauty it takes to be a ballerina of her caliber,” Kate St. Amand, Co-Artistic Director and Choreographer for SYREN Modern Dance, told me in an interview

But look through the shimmer of ethereal dust and you’ll find that Kent is a real person, too. Though ballet royalty she may be, she laughs, breathes, and eats like us mere mortals. She even goes to Starbucks, where I met her for breakfast a few months ago. I asked as many questions about her career and life as I could pack in, and she answered thoughtfully, pausing for meditation. Sometimes, she’d dodge to the counter for a napkin or take a bite of her food before finishing a sentence. I think I expected otherwise but Kent is flesh and blood. She’s also a genius — a genius whose wisdom displays an unrivaled diligence in her craft and an extraordinary gratitude to those who have helped her along the way.

For Kent, ballet has always been about the experience. She wanted to try a certain variation, not sign a soloist contract. Because she dedicated her time to engaging with her art form instead of exploiting it for fame or celebrity, acclaim came as a byproduct of passion. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Kent rose through the ranks of ABT until she was promoted to principal in 1993. Meanwhile, she also forayed into film. In 1987, she was featured in Dancers alongside Baryshnikov, and in 2000, she starred in Center Stage with her coworker, Ethan Stiefel.

Throughout our conversation Kent was quick to note her mentors and those to whom she credits the success of her career. Along with her coach, Georgina Parkinson, Kent cites Baryshnikov as one of her fundamental influences when she was a young professional. She learned what it meant to be a dancer from watching and examining his example.

“His whole process as an artist is so serious and not about the attention that your work gets you or what you get to be, but simply about the work itself,” Kent said. “And that is really rare now. Often, you see young people wanting to know what it is that they get to be. ‘I want to be this. I want to be this.’ Instead of ‘I want to do this.’ They’re two different things. One is focused on the process, the work. The other is focused on the result, and at the end of the experience, you realize the reward is the process itself, not where it gets you. Once you’re there, you’re done.”

Kent is also aware that her position as a ballerina falls into a centuries long line of dancers. “One of the most wonderful things about being a dancer is tradition and knowledge, the experience being handed down from one era to the next to the next,” she said. “I think that my work has been a complete reflection of my own ability to gather, store, interpret, and use information that all these other remarkable people have given me.”

Now, Kent has resolved to retire from ABT and with that close her chapter, giving space for the next generation of dancers to make their mark. “The next generation can’t really come into their own until they’re put into a position where they have to,” she noted.

Kent’s decision to leave ABT was influenced by many other factors as well — some concrete, others abstract. For one, the repertory won’t reflect her fortés in the near future. Kent is celebrated for her dramatic interpretations of female protagonists, and ABT’s current artistic director has decided to remove some of those most famous ballets of that type from his rotation.

Kent has also been waiting for the right moment to retire for a few years now. After she had two children and her 25th anniversary with ABT passed, she started to consider the possibility of life after Lincoln Center. No injury has forced her to stop. She’s never grown apathetic to her field. But recently, she’s felt that it’s time to explore new horizons.

“You just have to move forward, you know? You have to keep moving forward in life, because that’s what life is,” she said. “It’s a forward progression. You just can’t keep staying, and staying, and staying. And it doesn’t make it easy. None of this is easy for me because as you can imagine, it’s been my entire life for the past 30 years, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Kent intends to follow in the footsteps of Jenifer Ringer, the acclaimed New York City Ballet prima who recently published a memoir. Kent says she’s planning to write a book, sharing stories and advice from her time onstage.

For many a millennial dancer and dance fan, Kent’s exit from ABT is like losing a mentor. We’ve watched as she’s dazzled viewers night after night, always honoring ballet with her devotion and love.

Saturday evening’s show is sold out. Aficionados from around the world will clap and clamor as Kent takes her bow, and you can expect a long standing ovation for one of the ballerinas who brought dance into the 21st century. Then, the auditorium will grow silent, Kent will return to her New York City apartment, and an era will end.

But that is what makes sense; dance is fleeting. “It lives, breathes, and dies the same day,” Kent explained. “It’s over. Once the curtain comes down, it’s only alive in the memory of the people that saw it and experienced it, and that’s it.”

But memories are strong, especially when they’re memories of brilliance. Like Margot Fonteyn, it will take a long time for people to forget Julie Kent. And who knows what other accomplishments she’ll add to her legacy. In the meantime, she’s left us with some wisdom about how to become our best selves:

“I think it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be born with some incredible, outstanding talent in order to be a success,” she told me. “What you need to do is focus on learning. You have to zoom in and focus really hard on the task at hand, and then you have to come out and focus on the big picture. It’s just developing yourself, and it’s not easy, but to me, it’s what it’s all about. Fulfilling your potential.”

And so she did.

[Images via]