Julie Kent on Her Plans for Showcasing Washington Dancers

Julie Kent of American Ballet Theater during her farewell performance, of “Romeo and Juliet.” She said she wanted to set an example by embracing change.
Credit...Paula Lobo for The New York Times

Julie Kent told her Instagram followers about her new job earlier this month with a link to an article and a single word: “Surprise!”

In retrospect, her appointment to artistic director of the Washington Ballet shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Ms. Kent, a former principal dancer at American Ballet Theater who grew up in Maryland, has been training for the position, if indirectly, for years. The first professional stage she danced on was at the Kennedy Center, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride, in New York City Ballet’s production of “Coppélia.” She was 9. Now 46, Ms. Kent, who retired last spring and now runs Ballet Theater’s summer intensive program, will relocate to Washington with her husband, Victor Barbee, and their two children, ages 11 and 6.

Mr. Barbee will join her at Washington Ballet as the associate artistic director, the same position he holds at Ballet Theater. Ms. Kent officially begins her job on July 1, but is hard at work planning the 2016-17 season.

What does it mean to be a leader — especially when you didn’t plan on being one? Thoughtful and refined, but with plenty of good humor, Ms. Kent is likely to set a high standard. Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation at one of her favorite restaurants on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Do you talk to Aurélie Dupont, who just became artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet?

[Laughs] Via Instagram, yes! And I have to say that that was one of the little clicks. I thought, here we go. If she’s going to take on that responsibility, then I don’t see why I shouldn’t take on this.

Did the Washington Ballet approach you?

Oh, yes. And to be quite honest, the answer was no. We have a very happy, deep life here in New York City. Our children are thriving. It’s one thing if you’re really looking for something, it’s another thing if you’re perfectly content. It’s just that as the conversation continued, everything I saw as potential obstacles was addressed and fell away.

I want to set a good example for my kids in showing them to embrace change. I have experienced so little change in my life. I’ve been married for 20 years, we’ve been in the same apartment for 20 years, I’ve been in the same company for 30 years. That itself was an obstacle.

How so?

If I allow my children the opportunity to experience this, hopefully when they are 46 years old and an opportunity presents itself, that obstacle won’t be there. The other thing was to show their mother in a leadership role with their father supporting her.

How did your husband feel about this move?

He was clear that this was for me, and he was supporting me. But it was really my decision. Then the next decision was, are we going to support this with our family? He said yes.

What are your ideas for the company?

This season is a scramble because it has not been set yet. I’m hard at work trying to make some miracles happen, but there are limits.

I would love to pursue an English Masters program, Russian Masters, American Masters. So have an evening with a [Kenneth] MacMillan work, an [Frederick] Ashton work, an [Antony] Tudor work and a [Christopher] Wheeldon work. Do we see similarities? Is there something typically English about it?

You don’t have to like every single piece, but you have to understand why it’s important. Or why it should be danced.

Why do you want to start these kinds of conversations?

What people end up understanding is that they know a lot more about the ballet than they ever thought they did — because they know a lot more about life.

I would love to develop programs that cross-reference art. I’m inspired by [Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929:] When Art Danced With Music” that was at the National Gallery in Washington. Ballet isn’t just over here, and you either like it or you don’t. It’s part of the bigger conversation about art.

Who do you like in terms of new choreographers?

I can’t say that I’m the one that’s on top of what’s going on, so I’m just going to ask my friends and my huge support network.

It’s very important to give the opportunities to choreographers even if you’re not going to run to the bank with all the money you’re going to make on the show.

Before you accepted the job, you went to check out the company in a disguise: glasses and a hat. No one recognized you?

Nobody gave me a second look. If you ever want to be ignored, put your hair in a hat. I just put my head down, walked in, watched the ballet, read the program, left. Unrecognizable.

What did you like about the company?

They really enjoyed dancing and they have a nice feel as a company, a collective sense of dancers really committed to what they were doing. And a lot of potential. What I have for the image of our new brochure is their faces — the new face of the Washington Ballet. It’s just every single one of them, and you see how beautiful and diverse and American, essentially, they are.

Yes, it’s about important choreography, increasing the company and growing it so we can do wonderful work, but it’s also about the dancers who are there. This is their time. I want them to know it’s for them.