Ahead of the former TWB artistic director’s departure, we take a look back at some of Julie Kent’s best style moments.
Five Februaries ago, I volunteered to help at a fundraiser gala for The Washington Ballet (TWB). My job was checking in guests and giving them a table number. Half an hour in, another volunteer snuck over to my table, eyes wild.
“I just saw Julie Kent,” she whispered.
“Who?” I asked, unforgivably clueless.
“The Washington Ballet’s director. She danced with ABT and in movies and she’s so beautiful,” my friend said.
Julie Kent was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and performed in New York City for 30 years. She retired from the stage in 2015, and The Washington Ballet soon hired her as artistic director. During her six-year tenure, she commissioned 26 new works and staged productions of “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake.”
But what I will remember most is her pre-show fashion. Before performances, Kent floated onstage in street clothes to welcome the audience. I remember her skyscraper heels and fur ponchos, glitter and feathers. Last fall, I saw her open one show in a sweater — albeit a fancier sweater than I’ve ever owned.
This month Kent moves to Texas, where she will become co-artistic director of Houston Ballet. Her departure has launched TWB into transition: five of the strongest dancers are going with her, and a new artistic director has yet to be named. Still, Kent leaves behind a cadre of performers who make minute, artistic choices on stage — the flourish of a hand, the placement of a foot, a tilt of the head — the way she made fashionable choices in D.C.’s public eye.
As she packs up her wardrobe, we’re saluting her fashion and her legacy in D.C. Kent sat down with District Fray to discuss a few favorite looks from her years with us and what they’ve meant along the way.
The First Gala
Mary Day opened the Washington School of Ballet in 1944. Three decades later, she founded The Washington Ballet professional company to showcase her dancers’ talent. Day presided until 1999 when Septime Webre joined as artistic director. The board of directors recruited Julie Kent in 2016. The company’s 40th Anniversary Celebration was her coming-out party of sorts.
A stylist friend at Bloomingdale’s sent over several Reem Acra gowns for the gala. Struggling to choose between them, Kent had an idea.
“I [couldn’t] pick one,” she says. “[I asked,] ‘Why don’t I wear one per act?’”
In the end, she wore three looks, one to represent each phase of The Washington Ballet: Day’s era, Septime’s and finally her own.
“Her gowns almost upstaged the dancing,” wrote Sarah Kaufman, longtime dance critic of The Washington Post.
The Mary Day Dress: An elegant, structured, champagne-colored, off-the-shoulder gown evokes Day’s era. It’s cinched and belted, embellished with jewels and ’50s-esque.
“I understood [Day] never liked blue onstage, and so I definitely didn’t pick the blue one,” Kent says.
The Septime Webre Dress: A textured blue high-low dress and Manolos reflect the era of Septime, who was renowned for his showy, flamboyant ballet productions.
“I just thought that was a super fun, sort of sexy Cuban-ish kind of look,” Kent says, referring to Webre’s Cuban heritage.
The Julie Kent Dress: A strapless gown with a sweetheart neckline, a sequined bodice and a short, tulle train. Note the glittering rose-gold heels.
“It was all new, all fresh,” Kent says. “That’s how I remember it. A lot of enthusiasm; just a lot of energy.”
The First Few Years
The gala over, Kent got to work. In these first years, she produced ambitious classical ballets that got glowing reviews: “Giselle” in March 2017, Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream” in May 2017, “Les Sylphides” in October 2017 and “Romeo and Juliet” in February 2018.
But criticism dogged the company in these years as well, often aimed at Kent as TWB’s public face. A Washington Post article published in October 2018 built a narrative around Kent as costly — her artistic choices, her $250k annual salary, even the $2.5 million-dollar home where her family lived then — and questioned whether Washington dance audiences wanted what she offered.
Several months later, the company put on “The Sleeping Beauty,” its grandest production yet. For the premiere, Kent chose a rose-covered, mermaid-style dress by Marchesa Notte, the slightly more attainable “little sister” line from the couture brand Marchesa.
“’Rose Adagio’ is why I was going with the flowers,” she says.
She’s referring to the scene in which Princess Aurora dances with her suitors; the famously difficult choreography has become a measuring stick of sorts for ballerinas.
“You have to have strength and balance and composure,” Kent says.
What did The Post think of the show? A smash. “The Washington Ballet awakens with a lavish, triumphant ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” Kaufman wrote.
The Sleeping Beauty Dress: “It’s all embroidery and layers and velvet and little cutouts,” Kent says.
Next to her is Katherine Barkman, the star ballerina who joined Washington Ballet in 2018 and now dances with San Francisco Ballet.
Coming Out of Covid-19
Covid-19 canceled The Washington Ballet’s next big project, “Swan Lake.” The eerily prescient posters of a ballerina peering into the abyss, however, stayed up around the city for months. During the pandemic, the company partnered with a streaming platform to promote new dances choreographed at home, and the annual classic “The Nutcracker” went virtual, too.
In June 2021, the company threw its first in-person gala since the pandemic began. Kent wore a black, knit, two-piece set from Hania by Anya Cole.
“It felt a little weird getting super fancy at that time because this was seriously the first gala anybody in Washington had thrown since Covid broke,” Kent says.
Cole hired Kent back in 2015 as a brand ambassador to represent her luxury knitwear company. A former professional ballerina, Cole would knit her own sweaters and leg warmers between rehearsals. Later Cole turned this pastime into a company that employs women across New York City to produce her gorgeous, high-end designs (the cabled, 64%-cashmere Grove Sweater, for example, costs $3,150).
“They just feel like Anya’s hugging me,” Kent says.
The Black Sweater + Pant Crochet Set: Although the photo quality is grainy, this two-piece outfit (mentioned above) was too lovely to leave out.
The Cream-Colored Cable Sweater: Kent has worn Hania’s knits for important moments throughout her career. For example, she wore this cream-colored cable sweater in her TWB press announcement, as well as for meeting Caroline and Rose Kennedy backstage during JFK’s centennial celebration.
The Last Gala
In October 2022, Kent announced her departure for Houston Ballet. For her last company gala in Washington, Kent wore a cream-colored Carolina Herrera. Around the strapless gown’s neckline were little-girl bows the size of dinner plates.
“It’s a lot of emotion to process, but it’s exciting,” Kent says. “And I think that moving forward is what life does.”
Of the dress, Kent says, “They sent me several to choose from, but this was the only one that really fit. But I loved it. It was beautiful.”
The Gala Finale Dress: Kent wore Carolina Herrara at her final The Washington Ballet gala. At the far right is Jean-Marie Fernandez, chair of The Washington Ballet Board of Directors, and in the middle is Fernandez’s husband, Raul Fernandez.
The company may have to get scrappy in the coming months. But, as Kent put it, moving forward is what life does.
“If you’re really lucky, then you are able to share it with people you admire and respect and come to love,” she says. “And if you’re challenged, then what more can you ask for?”
Although the Washington Ballet’s 2023–2024 season won’t include any of the blockbuster story ballets of Kent’s era, the company will perform a mixed slate of jazz and contemporary works. In the latter, the company’s youngest crop of dancers thrives. And, “The Nutcracker” will go on as usual, with an artistic twist: Longtime director Septime Webre is coming back to refresh and revise the holiday classic this winter.
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