Jerry Hochman bids a personal farewell to American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent at her final performance in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet

Julie Kent at the curtain call of her farewell performance with ABT Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Julie Kent at the curtain call of her farewell performance with ABT
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 20, 2015

It’s been a long time, 1986 or 1987, since I first saw Julie Kent. She was a new member of American Ballet Theatre, but had already been assigned a role beyond being an anonymous member of the corps, having been selected from the pack for an individual cameo. She stood out immediately for her clarity of line, precision of movement, and ephemeral elegance; remarkable then for someone so young. I noted her name in my mind, and never forgot that first image of her.

Much has happened since then. I absented myself from ballet for a while as Kent’s star was rising, and I missed many performances when she was in her prime. She became the most enduring ABT ballerina of her generation, with a reputation not only for technical precision, but for translucent characterization in a multitude of roles that required both finesse and internal strength.

When ABT announced her retirement at the end of this season after a nearly thirty year career, one knew that her final performance would be both an event and a milestone; the formal recognition of the end of an era. And it was. Saturday night’s Romeo and Juliet was sold out weeks in advance, and orchestra standing room was three rows deep, something not seen in years. Many, it seemed, had never seen her dance before; they just wanted to be part of the event or to be able to tell their children they’d seen Kent dance. But many more had witnessed her performances, and wanted to honor their memories with their presence.

Saturday night’s full house was treated to two performances: a moving portrayal of Juliet, one of Kent’s most celebrated roles; and, after the curtain came down on the bows, the evening’s second act – the celebration.

In addition to rekindling memories, Kent’s Saturday night Juliet stood on its own as a remarkable achievement. There are technical things she can no longer do, but they were far outweighed by the things she still can. And although her experience is evident and unavoidable, her portrayal transcended that. The highlights were her very fine balcony scene (which brought down the house), and a thoroughly believable Act III. It was Kent’s finest performance by far in many seasons.

It was aided by the extraordinarily able and gracious partnering of Roberto Bolle, who has carved a career niche as a farewell partner. He presented her, carried her, and treated her like a passion-inducing teenager who happened to be light as a feather – but at the same time like a living precious gem.

Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in Romeo and Juliet Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in Romeo and Juliet
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Augmenting Kent and Bolle’s sterling performances were many that would have highlighted any evening, but that were particularly impressive here. Herman Cornejo still lights up the stage as Mercutio without looking full of himself. Blaine Hoven’s Benvolio has improved considerably since I last saw him dance it. Others included Alexandre Hammoudi’s gracious Paris, Patrick Ogle’s dogged Tybalt, and most impressively, Stella Abrera’s vibrant Lady Capulet. The portrayals of the Three Harlots by Luciana Paris (one of the finest to assay the role), Cassandra Trenary (an electrifying livewire), and Alexandra Basmagy (who lent her character a more refined air than others) were at the same high level.

There are few surprises to ABT farewell celebrations anymore. They follow a fairly pre-determined script – an abundance of flowers (after the curtain rose, the assembled multitude on stage each tossed a single rose toward Kent as she stood downstage half-heartedly attempting to duck), gold confetti, tears, cheers, and a parade of principal dancers, family members, administrators and teachers, and former dancers who greet, kiss, and present individual bouquets. Other dancers stand around the stage perimeter. Like the audience, all the assembled enthusiastically stand and applaud until, after multiple mutual salutations from the stage to the audience and back, the curtain comes down for a final time. So it was Saturday night.

But this farewell showed a side of Julie Kent that most audience members haven’t seen in many years. Rightly or wrongly Kent has appeared to many over the past few seasons as being somewhat distant and austere. The post-performance celebration, however, revealed her human side, and the ‘real’ Julie Kent. And seeing her interacting with her young son and daughter, presenting the latter with a tiny teddy bear that had been tossed onstage, and pretend-teaching her a few steps, proved what those who witnessed her dance in the past or know her personally are already aware: that beyond the performance mask there’s a real person with a gracious spirit and a warm heart.

Ultimately, it wasn’t her audience that honored Julie Kent at her farewell, it was Julie Kent who honored her audience with the gifts of an exceptional final performance, and of revealing the part of herself largely hidden behind stage roles.

It is thirty years since Julie Kent joined ABT as an apprentice. Her farewell is a milestone in the company’s history. But new dancers to cheer will rise. Like changes of direction, whether minimal or fundamental, that is inevitable. But regardless of what the future holds, Kent, ABT, and all of us who watch them together recognize and celebrate the evening’s landmark event.