Ballet Careers

In Defense of Patience: Julie Kent on the Labor and Reward of Becoming a Ballerina

Julie Kent working with students at ABT. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

When I was about 10, I auditioned for New York City Ballet, to be in their Harlequinade. I got to the final round and then wasn't selected. Of course I was disappointed, but my mother just said, “Julie, your time will come." And I think understanding that is a part of growing up.

As a young dancer, you're wondering what your life is going to be. Especially as you become a teenager, people are asking you “What are you going to do?" and you're asking yourself the same thing. The reality is, it's a beautiful unknown. It's an exquisite mystery. You have to embrace that and understand that you don't know—nobody knows—and as soon as a decision's made, whether it's an audition or an acceptance letter from a university or a job that you land, the work begins in a whole different way.

When I talked to young people at American Ballet Theatre's summer program when I was teaching, I liked to start conversations about the artist's pursuit. What I love so much about being a dancer is that every day, all of us start in first position, and we build on what we've accomplished the hour before, the week before, the year before, the performance before. We're in a constant pursuit of beauty, musicality, clarity, specificity, power, delicacy—you can fill in the blanks endlessly. And if you embrace the notion that it is an endless pursuit, you eliminate a lot of frustration. It's not that what you did the day before wasn't good enough. It's that you're building on it and you're always moving forward.


In the summer program, I said, “Don't try to accomplish in one week what you have five weeks to do." You need to find your goal and make a logical trajectory to achieving it. Every day you're making progress. Some days you might make giant leaps of understanding, some days it might be baby steps, some days maybe your feet don't move at all, but in your mind you're looking forward. It's still progress.

Mikhail Baryshnikov gave a commencement speech a couple of years ago. He said, “In my opinion, 'better' is something more interesting than 'best.' " Having watched him as a young dancer for five very formative years, I saw in him very clearly that pursuit. He was and arguably still is the greatest star in our art form, but he was always a servant to his art, always looking for more sophistication or clarity.


Kent teaching at ABT. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

When I was a young dancer, there was no internet and no cell phone communication. There was less pressure and less distraction. Now, there's such demand to have a high social profile on Facebook or Instagram, to be tweeting, to be Snapchatting—whatever is the thing of the moment. But with social media, you have to keep in mind that nobody's going to post a picture of what they really look like at every single moment of the day. What you post are the beautiful shots—it's publicity. It's images of dancing; it's not really dance. And so it has very little to do with the process of dancing. The work is still the work, and at the end of the day, the work is what you have left, and is both your labor and your reward.

The heart of it is the intention. The stage is a great revealer—it's hard to cover your intentions when you're performing, because you're revealed for who you are. If you want to be a star, then you should set about ways to become a star. And that's a whole different thing than becoming a dancer. Wanting to embrace a lifelong pursuit of an art form is different than wanting 300,000 followers on Instagram. You can do both, but the work should speak for itself, and it will reward you with something that is irreplaceable, and far deeper and longer-lasting than if you're just pursuing fame.

There are a lot of wonderful role models today. Look at Stella Abrera—talk about patience and perseverance. Her focus was not solely on becoming a principal dancer, but was a bigger commitment to delivering excellence in every performance. There's nobody with a more stellar work ethic, which along with her talent, patience and focus, propelled her promotion. Isabella Boylston is very vibrant on social media, but she's also committed to being a well-rounded dancer and ballerina. Marcelo Gomes is so much about the work, but he's also very much a star.

When I auditioned for ABT and Baryshnikov offered me an apprentice contract, I thought, Wow, this is happening, and when he offered me my full contract in the corps, that was it. But until that moment, I didn't know that I was going to have this career. I was a ballet student who loved it and was doing well. I was managing my academics and my ballet studies, my mom driving me to ballet class—just like so many other young dancers. And then that moment came and really changed the direction of my life.

You don't become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It's a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you're able to look back to see where you came from.

Working hard, being disciplined and focused, loving what you do—all these things that are a natural part of being a dancer—will equip you with the tools to make a contribution to the world and be successful. Do you want to dance? At the end of the day, that's what it is. Get to the heart of what your work as a dancer means to you and then start pursuing it.

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My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

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In addition to running the Ballet Chicago Studio Company (BCSC) and its affiliated school, former New York City Ballet principal Duell and his wife, Patricia Blair, who danced with Eglevsky Ballet, are répétiteurs for The George Balanchine Trust. The couple's investment in Balanchine's technique and repertoire has afforded Ballet Chicago a unique relationship with the Trust, giving BCSC dancers the opportunity to perform classic ballets like Concerto Barocco, "Rubies," Tarantella and Valse-Fantaisie.

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Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III at Ballet Sun Valley in 2017. Photo by Steve Dondero, Courtesy Ballet Sun Valley.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Isabella Boylston Curates Her Second Hometown Ballet Festival

American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston moonlights as artistic director of Ballet Sun Valley, which she founded last year. The second annual festival will run July 17–18 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Boylston's hometown. Boylston has created two programs composed of pas de deux and solo pieces from choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe, as well as Justin Peck's In Creases, the one work for a larger ensemble.

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Ballet Careers
Boston Ballet II associate director Peter Stark takes a picture of the group after class. Stark often observes company class when artistic director Mikko Nissinen is teaching. "He'll take notes and give us feedback on what the artistic staff is looking for," says BBII dancer Caroline Buckheit. Photo by Liza Voll.

For the members of Boston Ballet II, Thursday mornings are a special treat. At 9 am, well before the company arrives, they begin their own class with BBII associate director Peter Stark. It's their chance to talk through corrections and dig into the details of their technique—a welcome break from the fast-paced company environment they're just getting used to. "I really enjoy our Thursday class," says Catherine Livingston, 19, who joined BBII last fall. "It's just the 10 of us, and Peter coaches us all individually."

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via YouTube

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Left to right: Via Elevé Dancewear; Via LeaMarie

Planning to spend the majority of your summer sweating it out in the studio? Don't worry, you're not alone. And while you're definitely going to want to save the warmups for the winter, you can still accessorize your studio look without adding bulk, thanks to the always-in-style ballet skirt. From bright florals to washed out pastels and wild prints, we rounded up our favorite short (and a few long!) ballet skirts for summer.

AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

via AinslieWear

f you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully).
ainsliewear.com, $50

Health & Body
Thinkstock

Monthly periods can be a huge hassle for anyone. But donning a leotard and tights or getting through a tough barre when you're having your period can make it even harder to deal with. Dr. Lauren Streicher, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, offers these tips for bunheads to ease pain and symptoms.

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Photo by Amy Velasquez via Unsplash

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An American in Paris, the wildly popular musical directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, comes to movie theaters nationwide September 20 and 23. Filmed in London in 2017, this version features the show's original stars: former New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and former Royal Ballet first artist Leanne Cope. Based on the classic 1951 Gene Kelly film with a score of Gershwin standards, An American in Paris played on Broadway and in London's West End to rave reviews and numerous awards, including a 2015 Tony for Best Choreographer. This limited screening will bring the best of Broadway up close to the masses. For a full list of participating theaters and to purchase tickets, available July 12, click here.

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