Washington Ballet looks to past to begin future with Julie Kent

When new leadership takes the reins of an arts institution, the focus tends to be on where the company is going in the future. For the new Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet, Julie Kent, however, her first season will open with a celebration of the company’s past.

On September 30, The Washington Ballet (TWB) will present its one-night-only 40th Anniversary Celebration in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. The evening will be a three act program featuring signature works created for the company by former artistic leaders Choo San Goh and Septime Webre, as well as well-loved excerpts from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Theme and Variations.

Julie Kent, Artistic Director, Washington Ballet (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Julie Kent, Artistic Director, Washington Ballet (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Kent thinks the diverse retrospective is the perfect way to start her tenure with the company: “It’s a wonderful starting point for everybody to look back and appreciate everything that has been accomplished for the company in the last 40 years and the more than 70 year legacy [founder Mary Day] left with the Washington School of Ballet.”

Kent comes to Washington from the American Ballet Theatre, where she was a principal dancer until June, 2015 and served as the Artistic Director for their summer intensive programs until joining TWB on July 1. However, some might recognize her best from her role as Kathleen Donahue in the cult-classic dance film Center Stage.

The 40th Anniversary Celebration, in addition to recognizing a milestone, will also serve as a symbolic transition of power from former Artistic Director Septime Webre to Kent. Webre’s work as a choreographer will be highlighted in the second act of the program as representative of a key turning point in the company’s history. The Celebration will be the first performance for the company which will place Webre in its past instead of its present.

“[W]e have to celebrate and pay tribute to [Webre’s] contribution to growing the company to the size it is now … and all of the lives that we have helped shape through studying of a classical art, which I’m a huge advocate for,” said Kent.

In addition to creating original pieces for the company during his 17 year tenure, Webre developed some of the company’s key community programs including a residency at THEARC in southeast DC, a program with DC Public Schools, and the well-regarded collaborations with Imagination Stage.

Webre was not the first artistic leader to make his mark with TWB.

Singaporean choreographer Choo San Goh was invited by TWB founder Mary Day to join the company as a resident choreographer in 1976. Goh would go on to become the company’s Associate Artistic Director. “40 years ago that was a really big idea,” Kent said. “At that time, that was very unusual for a small company of this size and smaller then to have its own choreographer creating works for the company.”

Before his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1987 from complications related to AIDS, Goh inspired international interest – including from dancer-turned-Artistic-Director Mikhail Baryshnikov, who as Artistic Director brought Goh’s choreography to American Ballet Theater. In addition to his work for TWB, Goh’s commissions include works for Joffrey Ballet, Houston Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Dutch National Ballet.

During his time with TWB Goh created 14 original pieces including “Fives” which will be performed as the first act of the 40th Anniversary Celebration next week. The Washington Post once called “Fives” the company’s “signature piece,” noting in a 1993 review that its finale almost always “brings down the house.”

With a rich history of works and choreographers, TWB fans might be wondering if Kent will continue the tradition of commissions.

The Washington Ballet with Artistic Director Julie Kent (Photo: Dean Alexander)

The Washington Ballet with Artistic Director Julie Kent (Photo: Dean Alexander)

“I feel that any thriving arts institution has to have the creative process as a part of its internal dynamic for dancers, for the audience, for the community to have the opportunity to create art that is reflective of our time and what’s happening now,” she said.

While she could not confirm details, Kent did say that her first commission as Artistic Director will arrive before the end of this season: a planned world-premiere to be presented at the Kennedy Center on Memorial Day weekend 2017.

“[T]he creative process is an important part of the big picture here,” she affirmed.

The third act of the program for the 40th Anniversary will be a medley of famous and demanding ballet masterworks, which Kent hopes will demonstrate the company’s commitment to excellence, which is “at the heart of the company.” A commitment that she thinks Washingtonians can take pride in and hopes they will support as she looks to grow the company’s prominence on the national stage.

Ultimately, Kent hopes that this retrospective will “inspire great excitement and investment in taking this company to even greater heights” in the future. While the company has a past to be proud of, she insists there is still work to be done to establish The Washington Ballet as an international force, a major focus of her vision for the next 40 years.

As the company looks to the past, Kent foresees a future of hard work as the company continues to grow and maintain its excellence. Kent emphasizes that it will take enormous effort from the company and support from the community. “Diamonds don’t come cheap!,” she added with a laugh.

For now, however, the company will celebrate.

The Washington Ballet presents its 40th Anniversary Celebration on September 30 at 8pm in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. More information and tickets are available here.

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Jonelle Walker is a 2016 DC Arts Writing Fellow with Day Eight. She is also a Theatre History and Performance Studies masters student at the University of Maryland, a freelance theatre writer, and the Artist-in-Residence and Literary Manager for Blind Pug Arts Collective. She earned her undergraduate degrees in Literature and Theatre Arts from American University in 2013.

This article was produced through the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of the non-profit Day Eight, through funding from the National Endowment for the ArtsHumanities DCBrink MediaThe Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and DCRE Residential. To read additional articles produced through the fellowship visit Artapedia.com.

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