What the Departure of Julie Kent Means for the Washington Ballet

After seven seasons, the company’s artistic director heads to Houston, leaving many wondering what’s next for the local ballet company.

This article was written for and published by Washington City Paper.

On Oct. 21, the Washington Ballet announced that Julie Kent, its star artistic director, would leave the organization at the end of the current season to become the co-artistic director at Houston Ballet, a new role seemingly made for her. Her unexpected departure from TWB has obvious repercussions for the company and raises questions about its future.

“I had an opportunity that grew very organically and really made sense on a lot of levels. And it seems like a logical next step for me to work in probably one of the greatest ballet companies in this country, if not the world,” Kent tells City Paper regarding her decision to step away from TWB. “I’m just honored to have the opportunity to join that community.”

Kent is only the third artistic director of the Washington Ballet in its 55-year history. Her tenure, from 2016 to 2023, will be the shortest. Septime Webre was artistic director from 1999 to 2016, following the company’s founder, Mary Day, who was artistic director from 1967 to 1999. Kent confirmed that the opportunity and decision to accept Houston’s offer were sudden. “It came together very quickly,” she says, noting it happened this fall.

Kent’s recruitment to lead the Washington Ballet was heralded as a move that would help the company emerge onto the national stage. Kent was the longest-serving ballerina in the history of American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies. She performed principal roles in more than 100 classical and contemporary ballets while at ABT, and originated roles in works by Mark MorrisTwyla Tharp, and Stanton Welch (Houston Ballet’s artistic director, who will continue in the role alongside Kent). 

Kent is known in pop culture circles for her performance in the 2000 film Center Stage. But to those in the dance world, she is recognized as a ballerina of extraordinary accomplishment, discussed alongside dancers such as Suzanne FarrellNatalia Makarova and Sylvie Guillem. When Kent arrived in Washington, she brought a radiant star power that was undeniable. Her trajectory in some ways parallels Judith Jamison, the longtime artistic director of New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who was a highly celebrated performer before transitioning into leadership.

“Julie is known for the pursuit of excellence—not as a goal, but as an ongoing process,” Jean-Marie Fernandez, board chair of the Washington Ballet, tells City Paper. “Our entire organization has benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from this quintessentially ‘Julie’ mindset.”

While praise for Kent is uniform in the dance community, it’s not clear that the company has always risen to her expectations, or that audiences have been able to grasp her vision. Prior to assuming leadership of TWB, Kent had no experience as a company director: She retired as a performer with ABT in 2015, one year before taking the job here. Her husband, Victor Barbee, associate artistic director of ABT from 2001 to 2016, however, was hired for the same role under Kent at TWB. (Barbee will also be departing TWB at the end of this season.) 

“The directors brought in some new dancers, but in fact, they polished the whole company,” says Sarah Kaufman, who has reviewed TWB’s productions for years as chief dance critic for the Washington Post. “Julie and her husband Victor staged truly handsome productions of GiselleSleeping BeautySwan Lake, and the dancers stepped up to the challenges of that.”

Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of the New York Times from 2007 to 2018, agrees the direction provided by Kent resulted in improvement in performances of classical ballets. “Under Kent, I was immediately impressed by changes for the better in the company’s classical style,” he tells City Paper. “The company was evidently acquiring a single, coherent vision of classical style.”

“After I retired … Kent, whom I had never met before, consulted me about Swan Lake, by email, as she was preparing her new production,” Macaulay says. “I gradually realized she was much better educated than most dancers (and than many critics) in the immense complexities of Swan Lake’s textual issues.”

Kent, in our interview, expressed gratitude for the acclaim her stagings of classical ballets have received and pointed to the company’s place in the community as part of her legacy. While there are a number of large theater companies in the region with their own buildings and staff, there is only one such professional dance company. TWB impacts and influences not only professional dance in D.C., but dance education as well.

“There’s so much that I’m proud of,” says Kent. “I am so proud of all the accomplishments that we have made on stage, as far as all the artistic and technical and just the comprehensive growth of the dancers.” Additionally, she pointed to the restructuring of the company’s education facility in Congress Heights, which she says is, “producing dancers that are going on to wonderful careers either professionally or in high-level college programs.” 

While classical ballets at TWB shined under Kent, some of the new works she commissioned were less well-received. Lisa Traiger, an independent dance critic and journalist who has been covering the field in the region for four decades, recalls a ballet commissioned from Kent’s former ABT colleague Ethan Stiefel to commemorate President John F. Kennedy’s space program with “ridiculous space suit costumes, an ugly set, and inconsequential choreography.” 

While Kent programmed some noteworthy new works, including pieces by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Traiger evaluates, “most of them were middling, unlikely to be seen in subsequent seasons, or move to other companies.” Kent’s predecessors, Webre and Day, while less accomplished than Kent in some ways, were lauded for their ability to recruit standout choreographers for the company, including Trey McIntyre and Choo San Gho, respectively.

Like many artistic leaders over the past few years, Kent’s time leading the company’s programming was significantly impacted by the pandemic. Of her seven seasons at TWB, one was canceled in its entirety by COVID-19 and another was entirely virtual. (Not to mention, her first season was spent producing performances programmed prior to her arrival.) 

Leading a dance company through a pandemic is much like coaching a team that’s never allowed to play. In a regular year, budgeting, season planning, and dancer development call for a skilled balancing act; being responsible for such areas of management during an unprecedented global pandemic is an additional level of difficulty. And there is uniform appreciation for the ways in which Kent navigated all of the challenges presented by COVID.

Now, with the company finally emerging into a more pre-pandemic rhythm, Kent’s decision to leave is another unexpected blow. Together Fernandez and Kent convened a special board meeting to share the news earlier this fall. Fernandez confirms the company is currently hiring a firm to assist the board committee in identifying candidates. An exact timeline for the hiring of the firm, let alone a new AD, was not confirmed.

The conclusion of each season is when dancers’ contracts are reviewed, renewed, and promotions considered. With Kent’s impending departure, it’s unclear who will handle those discussions, evaluations, and negotiations. However, Patrick Kennedy, the company’s managing director since August 2020, says, “Julie is with the Washington Ballet and fulfilling all artistic director responsibilities through the end of the 2022-23 season.”

The company has said little else about the transition. Now it prepares for its most important performance run of the year: 41 performances of The Nutcracker running Nov. 12 through Dec. 30. The holiday ballet is not just important for 2022, but TWB’s future. Theater and dance audiences have been slow to return and the box office success of this year’s Nutcracker run may be critical to the financial stability of the company. In her book Nutcracker NationJennifer Fisher writes that ticket sale revenue from The Nutcracker is commonly more than 50 percent of annual ticket sale revenues for U.S. ballet companies. TWB hopes this year’s production will bring a return to pre-pandemic sales, but it will have to do so while competing with a Nutcracker production from Kansas City Ballet at the Kennedy Center.

Kent’s departure from TWB creates an opportunity for the company to redefine its place in the community. “There is a certain amount of momentum that a company needs to be a part of a community,” Kent says. “I’m really optimistic and hopeful that the next director will be able to just continue to build on all that we’ve accomplished to date and continue to engender even greater enthusiasm and interest.”

Until the next director arrives, and following this season’s Nutcracker performances, audiences can enjoy a weekend of works by George Balanchine from Feb. 22 to 26, a family-friendly performance run of adapted classics from April 7 to 9, and a run of The Sleeping Beauty from May 4 to 7. Perhaps, by that last performance, a new artistic director will be waiting in the wings.

Remembering Artist Sam Gilliam 1933-2022

Written for and published by Washington City Paper here.

Local artists and associates remember the iconic artist

One of the great artists of his generation, Washington, D.C.’s Sam Gilliam passed away Sunday at the age of 88. As reported by the Washington Post, the cause was kidney disease. Originally noted for his draped color-drenched canvases, Gilliam emerged from D.C. onto the global art stage in the early 1970s: His first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was in 1971. The Hirshhorn Museum is currently displaying a solo show of Gilliam’s work through September 11, 2022. His artworks are in the collections of major museums around the world, including the Tate Modern in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Locally, his work can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Katzen Arts Center at American University, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As the global art world responds to the loss, the news is personal for the many local residents who knew and worked alongside Gilliam.

Photographer Carol Harrison, an MFA student at the University of Maryland while Gilliam taught there, recalls a generous thesis advisor and friend. “Sam was a lifelong mentor to me and a kindly ‘uncle’ to my daughter,” she tells City Paper

Poet E. Ethelbert Miller recounted his initial friendship with Gilliam’s first wife, former Post journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam, and how Sam Gilliam existed as a visual artist in a way that overlapped with D.C. poets. Speaking by phone, Miller recalls an artwork Gilliam gave him after the artist was inspired by the title of one of Miller’s poems.

Clark V. Fox, a New York-based artist who spent many years in D.C., shares, “Sam and I were in an exhibition of Washington color painting at the museum in Edmonton, Canada. We were supposed to fly back to Washington D.C. but Sam talked me into taking a Greyhound with him across Canada particularly to look at the high Rocky Mountains around Banff. He was just getting his ideas together for the hanging paintings that he’s so famous for now. He would like to see the way the mountains rolled. … It was a long bus ride.”

William Wooby, an organizer of the Robert Mapplethorpe protests at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the 1980s, recounts Gilliam’s support for his Millennium Art Center, once located in the space that will soon become the Rubell Museum. “He was always there to support some artists, or art organization,” Wooby says. 

Adams Morgan resident and architect Steven Spurlock first worked with Gilliam in 1977; the two had an ongoing association for 30 years, including working on a number of public art projects. “It was one of the highlights of my architectural career to have the long-term collaborative relationship I had with Sam,” he says. “Sam continues to inspire me.”

For more than two decades, Gilliam worked out of his studio at 1428 U St. NW, before moving in 2011 to a studio further up 14th Street NW that Spurlock designed. “He paid me one of the nicest compliments I think I’ve ever received,” Spurlock recalls. After moving into the studio, he says, “I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘coming to work in such a wonderful studio, I feel like the space inspires me to do better work.’”

In a statement, Mayor Muriel Bowser offers: “I was proud, last year, to honor Sam Gilliam with the Mayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. Sam was a local and national treasure. He started the D.C. chapter of his art career sharing his talents with young Washingtonians as an art teacher at McKinley Tech, and then went on to share his talents with the world. We are so incredibly proud that his legacy will live on in artwork across the District and around the world and through the many young people and artists that he inspired.”

Reggie Van Leeboard chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, says, “I have known Sam Gilliam for decades and am proud to be a collector of his extraordinary works of art.” Van Lee notes that Gilliam’s artwork “Ship” was the “first work catalogued and accessioned into the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Art Bank Collection in 1988.” “Ship” will be loaned to MLK Library for display in September. Public art by Gilliam is on permanent display in the underpass at the Takoma Metro station and at National Airport.

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art and a champion of Gilliam’s work, wrote, “We are reeling from the news about Sam. He was a brilliant artist and a kind person. We will long feel the loss in the D.C. region and beyond.”

Jonathan Walz, co-curator of the recent Alma W. Thomas retrospective displayed at the Phillips Collection and director of the Columbus Museum in Athens, Georgia, echoes Wooby’s statement. “Sam Gilliam was the living backbone of the Washington D.C. arts scene for most of his adult life,” he says.

Gilliam, who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and moved to D.C. in 1962, is survived by his wife, Annie Gawlak, his daughters, sisters, and grandchildren. While his impact is global, the loss for many in Washington is personal.

After 25 Years Bowen McCauley Dance Company Takes a Final Bow

Local choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley’s company is celebrating 25 years with one final performance at the Kennedy Center.

I wrote this for print in the Washington City Paper, and it’s online on their website here.

An upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center will be a unique chance to celebrate local dance legend Lucy Bowen McCauley as her company commemorates its 25th anniversary and takes its final bow. 

After 25 years, the Bowen McCauley Dance Company will present its final performance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. The Kennedy Center requires all patrons to submit proof of their vaccine status and masks are required.

Lucy Bowen McCauley moved to New York City to study with the Joffrey Ballet at age 18. Now 62, Bowen McCauley is perhaps the most consistent dance-maker in the D.C. region. She has choreographed multiple works for her company every year since its inception in 1996. Despite having a sizable catalog to draw from, this last show is typical of BMDC in that it includes multiple premieres. 

“Other companies, when they’re winding down, they go back into the vault and bring back the older pieces and great favorites,” Bowen McCauley said recently. “If I had a whole week at the Eisenhower Theater I certainly would do that … But we’re going to go out, I feel, with some of my very best work.”  

Bowen McCauley is known as a consistent collaborator and an artist’s artist; recent collaborators include former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and the Alexandria Symphony. One of the premieres in this show, “Insistent Music,” is set to a score by Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz, who Bowen McCauley describes as “a modern-day Stravinsky.”  

“My music has always been so strongly tied with the folk dances from Turkey and the region,” Eryilmaz says. “Pulse and rhythmic patterns shape my music. What I love about Lucy’s work is that she adds more dimensions to pulse and rhythmic patterns that exist in the music.”

Another premiere, “Image,” is set to music by German and Croatian composer Nikola Glassl, which will be played live by the composer’s grandson and pianist Nikola Paskalov, the company’s music director, with soprano Karin Paludan

Alicia Curtis, the company’s rehearsal director, says “Lucy’s choreography always has a strong connection to the music. I can feel that as a dancer when learning the choreography, and I think viewers can feel that as well.” Curtis is also retiring from the stage with this performance, following 13 years with the company. 

Along with the choreographic premieres by Bowen McCauley, this show will feature a premiere by Israeli choreographer Igal Perry—a solo for dancer Manish Chauhan. Chauhan was born to a poor family in India, and his life story inspired a recent film, Yeh Ballet, distributed by Netflix, and in which Chauhan stars. This performance will be Chauhan’s U.S. stage premiere.  

Chauhan is also subject of the documentary Call Me Dancer, currently in post-production, directed by local filmmaker Leslie ShampaigneCall Me Dancer follows Chauhan over a two-year period, and Shampaigne says she wanted to make the film “to show people that it doesn’t matter what economic background you come from—art can change a life.” 

Dance may have lengthened Bowen McCauley’s life: Nearly 20 years ago she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which causes her heart to pump slowly and less efficiently. “What helps keep people from getting sick is exercise,” she says. “So my career probably made it that I developed this problem later … I didn’t start to see it till I was 40, whereas in my mother, it started much younger.” 

Bowen McCauley has had five heart surgeries, the most recent in 2019, and she says her health is an influence in the decision to shut down the company. “With the pacemaker, defibrillator, and the medicines, I actually feel pretty good most days,” she says. “I am doing well, but people with my problems don’t usually have the longest life in the world.”

Alison Crosby, a founding company member who directs the company’s outreach programs, said, “[Lucy] has battled chronic health issues that could have made someone else back away from the hard work it takes to maintain a dance company.” 

Bowen McCauley plans to continue her Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program. She also has some side projects planned in choreography, and looks forward to having “a little more free time to travel and you know read books and see friends and just take it a little more easily.” 

While we may see more of Lucy Bowen McCauley’s choreography, Tuesday night will be the last chance to see her choreography performed by the company that bears her name.

25th Season Final Performance. Sept. 14, 7 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. $50. kennedy-center.org.