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JULIE KENT, AFTER 20 YEARS AT ABT, IS STILL THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on July 13, 2006.

July 13 (Bloomberg) — Auburn-haired, with a porcelain complexion, a willowy grace and a wistful air, Julie Kent has magically retained the appeal of a young romantic heroine.

The dancer, who turns 37 this week, will celebrate her 20th anniversary with American Ballet Theatre tomorrow, starring in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s safe to say that among ABT’s roster of amazing women — formidable technicians, high-voltage dramatic dancers, divas and soubrettes — Kent is the most loved. Born and raised in Maryland, she trained at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, under the celebrated Hortensia Fonseca, eventually making side trips to the School of American Ballet in New York.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, ABT’s director at the time, chose her at an audition to join the company as an apprentice when she was 16. And there she loyally remained, rising from corps de ballet to soloist in 1990, then to principal dancer in 1993.

It didn’t hurt that she was cast opposite her charismatic boss in the 1987 Herbert Ross film “Dancers.”

“Luckily, I didn’t have to do much dancing,” Kent recalled last week in an interview backstage at the Met. “It was just playing a young girl who was infatuated with Mikhail Baryshnikov. It didn’t take a lot of acting, that situation.”

Since then, Kent has danced classical and contemporary roles. She’s an expert at transformations. In the dual role of Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake,” she’s the incarnation of unsullied love, then all erotically charged malice.

In the title role of “Giselle” and as Nikiya in “La Bayadere,” she’s equally convincing as a humble girl in love and an impalpable, still loving wraith.

Fraught souls are not beyond her, and she lends radiance to abstract works. Cast to type as the girl next door, she’s irresistible.

Not Enough Balanchine

Her only regret? Not having danced more Balanchine, as she would have if she’d joined the New York City Ballet instead of ABT. “When I watch those marvelous works,” she says, “I can imagine how it would feel to dance them. But I know I’m not going to, and I try to be happy simply that they exist for the world to see.”

As she matured, Kent became increasingly persuasive in dramatic roles. She credits two people for helping her make a character and a story convincing.

Her husband, Victor Barbee, a dramatic dancer with ABT before he became the company’s associate artistic director, taught her how to explore a role deeply and connect the events in the narrative. ABT Ballet Master Georgina Parkinson worked with her to make all that preparation visible onstage.

Dance Partners

Kent is equally grateful to the exceptional partners ABT has given her. “One of my first partners, Robert Hill, taught me about physical abandon. You need to know what that feels like in order to achieve it with another partner.

“Today? Angel Corella — his energy is contagious and everything about him is fun. Jose Carreno is silken-smooth and elegant.

“Marcelo Gomes is exceptionally tall and strong, which makes me feel more feminine. He’s also quite a bit younger and less experienced than I am. That can make me feel I’m looking after him.”

A classical dancer nearing the age of 40 can expect some deterioration in her technique. Kent agrees that eventually a dancer must learn “how to say more with less.” But, she emphasizes, “I was never a brilliant technician, and it’s not in my nature to show off my technique just for itself. I use technique in order to express something.”

She plans to dance “for a few more years,” while ultimately basing her decisions on her family life. She and Barbee, parents of 2-year-old William, hope to have a second child.

Kent, who relishes motherhood, believes that “as children grow older, they need you in a much more complicated way.”

Insulation

Looking back on her career, Kent observes, “Being a dancer gave me something I’ve craved all my life — the chance to create on the stage — in those magical moments under the lights and in the darkness behind the lights, backstage.

“It also gave me the cocoon world the dance community offers. The surroundings that insulate you and give you an identity. I became Julie Kent.”

If she hadn’t become a dancer, what would she have been? “A writer,” Kent imagines. “I like to express myself, you see. Just not by talking.”

American Ballet Theatre performs at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, through July 15. Information: (1)(212) 477-3030 or http://www.abt.org . Tickets: (1)(212) 362-6000.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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