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Julie Kent Imparts Words of Wisdom to the CAS Class of 2023

Ballet icon offers inspiration and guidance as she and our graduates enter a new chapter

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Accomplished on stage and off, Julie Kent, the longest-serving ballerina in American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) 83-year history and outgoing artistic director of The Washington Ballet, delivered the College’s commencement address on May 13, 2023, during American University’s 145th commencement.

CAS Commencement Speaker Julie Kent

Kent is no stranger to American University. In 2018, nearly 200 people gathered at AU’s Abramson Family Recital Hall to hear Kent speak about artistic expression, the DC performing arts scene, motherhood, the importance of character, and leadership in the arts.

Julie Kent, Britta Joy Peterson, and Andrew Taylor on stage.

Kent, a DC-area native, joined ABT as an apprentice in 1985 and rose to the rank of principal dancer in 1993. She starred in the Herbert Ross film Dancers in 1987 opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1993, she became the first American to win the Erik Bruhn Prize in Toronto and was named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” In April 2000, Kent achieved another triumph, becoming the first American to win the “Prix Benois de la Danse.” Later that year, Kent starred in the motion picture Center Stage directed by Nicholas Hytner. In 2012, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as well as a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Dance Magazine. After a 29-year career with ABT, she retired from the stage in 2015, having danced in more than 100 ballets during her career.
In 2016, Kent took on the role of artistic director at The Washington Ballet (TWB), the ballet company in and of the nation’s capital. During her tenure with TWB, Kent brought important classical and contemporary masterworks into the repertoire, including a critically acclaimed production of The Sleeping Beauty staged by Kent and her husband Victor Barbee, TWB's associate artistic director. Her steadfast commitment to the development of artists, rising choreographers, and the creation of arts education initiatives that benefit DC’s dance community, have showcased her dedication to creativity, expression, and to the propulsion of ballet forward into the 21st century.

Julie Kent

After seven seasons, Kent is about to bid farewell to DC and take the reins at Houston Ballet as co-artistic director. 
As one of the world’s most accomplished and revered dancers, Kent knows a thing or two about perseverance, strength, discipline, and success, and she graciously shared her thoughtful words of wisdom with the class of 2023, as she and our graduates enter a new chapter of their lives. Here are some of the highlights:

The Pursuit of Improvement 

“Perhaps the most inspiring attribute of a dancer’s mindset is their commitment to the pursuit of improvement. Whether a star dancer on international stages, or a beginning ballet student, every dancer begins each day the same: in first position. And then we move forward, one exercise at a time trying to be just a little bit better than the day before. Not striving obsessively for perfection, but holding up our conviction that every day, inside each of us, lives the possibility for improvement…not from a sense of “less than,” but because we actually believe that we can be better!  

As my former mentor and boss, Mikhail Baryshnikov once said, “Being better is much more interesting than being the best!”  

Striving to be better ignites a passionate belief in yourself and in your limitless potential….and when you do find yourself navigating challenges, as you undoubtedly will, don’t be afraid of them. Do not see them as a negative, but as a doorway to the next level. Become comfortable with challenges, and welcome them, confident that with your cumulative knowledge, existing talents, your ability to learn and your commitment improve, you can and will overcome any obstacle.” 

We” is More Powerful than “Me” 

“I am often asked what I valued most in my career, and my answer is always the same: it’s always about the people. The people you meet, the people who believe in you and who share your dreams, the people you love, and the people who will share your memories. With the right people, you can climb any mountain and have someone to share the view with! You will have someone below holding your ropes and pointing out toe holds and hand grips, and someone above, cheering you on and motivating your ascent. “We” is far more powerful than “me”… and your intentional effort to build a positive, equitable, and inclusive culture will allow for your strategies to succeed.” 

Beauty Can Save the World

“Many years ago, the great Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova wrote me a note that read, "Someone once said, 'Beauty can save the world’... what a great responsibility you have to carry on your shoulders." 

Those words have meant a lot to me over the years: "Beauty can save the world.” And I have reflected often on their meaning and witnessed their truth time and again. 

We all have, in every moment in our lives, the opportunity to bring more beauty to the world... to leave it, and all of us, a better place. There is beauty in kindness, beauty in generosity, in honesty, effort, consideration, commitment, integrity, friendship, forgiveness… and in arts and sciences. There is beauty within each of you.... and I ask that you go forward and use your singular talents to share that beauty with the world, and in so doing, leave it a better place.”

Divinity in Detail

“A crucial skill essential to career growth and professional expansion is the ability to have a flexible lens in navigating focus between the big picture and the little picture. It’s not productive to approach life and work solely with a “big picture attitude,” nor by constantly scrutinizing the minutiae with a microscopic lens. While I am a firm believer in the divinity in detail, it is important to understand how every small piece fits into the bigger picture, knowing when to zoom in and when to zoom out to create clarity and confidence in your work.”