Julie Kent Joins Houston Ballet in History-Making Role
Julie Kent doesn’t remember a life before ballet. Her mother had designs on being a professional dancer, but when those plans didn’t pan out, she was excited to share her love of dance with her daughters.
“I’ve been going to the ballet studio since I was a baby,” she said. “And I just kind of patiently waited. My older sister started taking ballet class and then when I was old enough, I started taking ballet class and it was just a family activity.”
That family activity eventually became Kent’s life—and it has now taken her to Houston, where she was recently named the very first co-artistic director of the Houston Ballet. She’s currently the artistic director of the Washington Ballet, but begins her role in Houston in July.
For Kent, who spent her life and 30-plus year career on the East Coast, coming to Houston is an exciting proposition.
“I already feel so welcomed,” she said when we chatted on the phone in December. “The people are very warm and generous and I already feel like I have friends in Houston. I think that is a unique aspect of the city. I am really excited about it, both as an individual and as a professional.”
Bayou City warm welcome aside, Kent’s appointment ranks as a Very Big Deal in the Houston arts ecosystem. She is the first person to ever occupy this role with the Houston Ballet, widely recognized around the country and the world for both its dancer training programs and as an innovative artistic company. She’ll be sharing the reins with Stanton Welch, currently the Ballet’s artistic director.
“Not only is Julie Kent ballet royalty and immensely talented—as a dancer, coach, stager, and teacher—but there is no one I would rather have as a partner to bring Houston Ballet into this next chapter,” said Welch in a press release announcing Kent’s appointment. “I very much look forward to what will be a highly collaborative experience that will only elevate what Houston Ballet can achieve, both artistically and as an organization.”
The concept of collaboration is important to Kent, too. As a dancer, she’s often asked which roles are her favorite, or which productions have left an impact. The answer isn’t as simple as the Sugar Plum Fairy or a performance of Swan Lake.
“I always just think about the people I was dancing with because you can’t actually create something in a bubble or in a vacuum,” she said. “So, this co-directorship really is going to allow both Stanton and I to shine in our areas, and I am very excited to also have the support of a partner.”
Kent notes that the Houston Ballet has a strong community foundation, both within the company itself and in the greater Houston community it serves. She feels the company is in an excellent place for its next chapter.
Kent, who is the longest-serving ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre’s history, has danced in more than 100 ballets, among them classical, dramatic, and neoclassical works by the art form’s top choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Ben Stevenson, and others. Kent has also originated roles in new works by Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Natalie Weir, and her new artistic partner, Stanton Welch.
Her success as a child auditioning for summer programs and competitions gave her motivation to continue. She started dancing professionally at age 16 and, in a career that spans more than three decades, she’s worked on both the performance and artistic management side of ballet, which gives her insight into the challenges faced by dancers and the companies where they work.
She’s looking forward to helping dancers improve their strengths and also grow in new areas, as well as stretching her own skills. And she knows doing so means embracing the possibilities to come.
“Houston is a city where people want to get things done, where they want to achieve, and succeed,” she said. “And anybody that does those things knows that there’s an element of risk involved. It’s the excitement of that initial risk that brings people together, right? Any endeavor where you’re creating something new, whether it’s bringing in a new choreographer or embarking on a new project, the whole community learns through the process of building something together. The audience and the community will really be the beneficiaries of that influx of energy and enthusiasm and ideas.”
Kent is joined in her Houston adventure by her husband, Victor Barbee, who is the Washington Ballet’s associate artistic director, and her two children. She knows the move is an incredible opportunity in a life she knows has given her so many.
She can’t wait for what’s next.