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When the Ballerina Becomes the Boss Lady

“I can’t say that I ever doubted whether I could do the job,” Julia Kent tells OZY. “It was just whether I wanted to.”
SourceBill O'Leary / The Washington Post via Getty

When the Ballerina Becomes the Boss Lady

By Fiona Zublin


Because this could change the culture of ballet — maybe.

By Fiona Zublin

When the Washington Ballet asked Julie Kent to be its artistic director, she had to be talked into it. In June 2015, after a long career as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, Kent had hung up the slippers and was enjoying her new role as artistic director of the ABT’s Summer Intensive workshops. But top boss? She’d never thought about it. “I can’t say that I ever doubted whether I could do the job,” Kent tells OZY. “It was just whether I wanted to.”

As it turned out, she did want to. In September, Kent began her tenure as head of the most prominent dance company in the nation’s capital, joining the ranks of other women holding down the top creative position in major dance organizations. In the past few years, women have assumed leadership roles at the English National Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Miami City Ballet and a host of other companies. This new generation of artistic executives could open doors for other women who want to pull the strings of a discipline that’s often criticized for its harsh practices and emphasis on women’s thinness and ethereality.

Gettyimages 611135824

Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent

Source Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty

When the going gets tough, ballet companies … bring in the toughest people there are. They bring in the ballerinas.

This trend is a new chapter in an old narrative. After all, it’s not as though women have ever been kept out of the ballet world as a gender: Ballet runs on female talent and drive, and it always has. And many of the world’s most famous ballet companies, including Britain’s Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet, the ABT and the Washington Ballet itself, were founded by women. “It’s often women who are very good at the pioneering, taking risks when an art form is new,” says Judith Mackrell, dance critic for The Guardian. “Then, when it gets successful and consolidated, men kind of take over.”

But when the going gets tough, as it has for this rarefied art form, which struggles to maintain cultural relevance amid declining ticket sales and declining institutional support, ballet companies don’t bring in suspiciously orange businessmen with no experience: They bring in the toughest people there are. They bring in the ballerinas.

Women in ballet have to fight for everything they get. Female dancers face far more competition than male ones do, and their careers tend to be brutish and short. This fierce, all-or-nothing environment may discourage some ballerinas from trying their hand at directing, choreography and other dance-related skills. Then there are ballet’s long-standing gender stereotypes, which can mean women are overlooked when they’re gunning for the director’s chair. “That … valuing of men can breed a certain attitude toward worth,” says Nell Shipman, who took over as artistic director of the Portland Ballet last year. “But people are seeing now that women are working just as hard as these men, and they have important things to say as well.”

Another complicating factor: the biological clock. Since many ballerinas wrap up their dance careers at about the same time they may want to start families, you have an equation that, intentionally or not, has kept many women out of the artistic director role. “[Motherhood] complicates things as far as timing,” says Kent, who had two children during her 29-year career at the ABT, an abnormally long one in the ballet world. (Most dancers retire in their mid-30s.) 

For Hope Muir, who’ll take over next season at Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina, female role models in her native Canada helped her forge a path: She shadowed Karen Kain, the grande dame of the National Ballet of Canada, and admires how Emily Molnar, at Ballet BC, “brought the company back from nothing” when it was on the verge of closing. Both Mackrell and Muir mention how the support system for dancers has changed dramatically in recent decades: Young dancers often have access not only to nutritionists and psychologists but also to job counselors who can help them plan a post-ballet career, even one at the top of the heap.

To be sure, men still run the majority of big ballet companies around the world. But increasingly, female talent is being given a road forward — and women executives are bringing other women along with them. “One mustn’t underestimate the fact that there is a generation of very strong, clever, determined women who are jockeying for a place at the table,” Mackrell says. Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet, famously commissioned a triptych of new ballets choreographed by women for the 2015–16 season, the first works by women to premiere on the company’s stage in more than a decade. Portland’s Shipman says she’s made it part of her mission to nurture new directing and choreographic talent at the company. “The exciting thing about being where I am right now,” she says, “is seeing how I can make the path wider.”

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