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Dance Magazine has chosen four outstanding professionals on whom to bestow its 2012 awards. This year, the remarkable longevity of each recipient is just one of the inspiring aspects of their careers. On December 3, Kevin McKenzie will present the award to Julie Kent, Judith Jamison to Renee Robinson, Constance Valis Hill to Dianne Walker, and Lar Lubovitch to Anna Kisselgoff.
Sustaining longevity on the razor’s edge known as a ballet career takes an inordinate amount of talent, stamina, hard work, and intelligence. Continual elevation in the quality of technique and artistry along that pathway comes even rarer. But that’s what Julie Kent has accomplished. For 26 years at ABT she has shown how a ballerina blossoms. Having risen through the company’s ranks to become a senior ballerina, Kent has demonstrated immeasurable grace and an ability to excel in nearly every ballerina role in the company’s repertoire. If any dancer represents the essence of artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s aesthetic at ABT, it is Julie Kent.
At left: Kent as Odette in ABT’s Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
With her Botticellian beauty, smooth musicality, and exquisite line, Kent’s gifts were a perfect fit for ballet from a young age. Taught by Hortensia Fonseca at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, Kent later studied at the School of American Ballet and an ABT II summer session. Mikhail Baryshnikov asked her to join ABT’s corps de ballet in 1986, the same year she won a medal at the Prix de Lausanne. Four years later, she was promoted to soloist and easily assumed leading roles in ballets as diverse as Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and Ashton’s Birthday Offering. It was perhaps her extraordinary 1992 ABT debut as Giselle, however, that confirmed her arrival as an artist of supreme lyricism and touching artistry. In 1993 she won the Erik Bruhn Prize and was promoted to principal dancer.
Soon Kent added vividly classical renditions of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Nikiya in La Bayadère and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Through her elegant use of épaulement and port de bras, she communicates a story from her heart to her fingertips. In Romantic ballets, such as Bournonville’s La Sylphide and Fokine’s Les Sylphides, she conjures up an ethereal aura. In ballets by MacMillan, she has found poetic inner lives of the heroines. Her Juliet, windswept through an emotional storm, tracks the maturation of a young girl into womanhood. As Manon, she shapes the dramatic arc of the protagonist whose impulse-driven actions end in tragedy.
Her wistful Tatiana in Cranko’s Onegin contrasts with her feisty Katherina in Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew. She has also left indelible memories of feminine vulnerability as Desdemona in Lubovitch’s Othello and in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. She has excelled, often creating original roles, in contemporary ballets by Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Twyla Tharp, and Jirí Kylián.
At right: Kent in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
As a dancing mother—she has two children, William and Josephine, with her husband, ABT associate artistic director Victor Barbee—she has successfully juggled two of the most difficult jobs on the planet.
Kent has also been featured in two prominent dance films, Center Stage and Dancers. In 2000 she won the Prix Benois de la Danse; she is the only American ballerina to have achieved that honor. Over the years, she has generously helped to mentor new dancers at ABT, freely offering her advice and wisdom. A classical artist who dances from her soul, Julie Kent is an exemplary role model, especially for young American dancers. —Joseph Carman
This month Renee Robinson will make her last signature entrance as the “woman with the umbrella” in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. As always, the audience will roar when they see her in full white baptismal regalia, one arm holding the umbrella high above her head, while the other waves rhythmically, and her hips navigate her regal glide, as she slithers across the stage.
Renee Robinson with Matthew Rushing, a 2010 Dance Magazine Awardee. Photo by Andre Eccles, Courtesy Ailey.
Selected by Ailey in 1989 to lead this famous “Wade in the Water” section, Robinson certainly holds her own. She also claims the stage in other Ailey works, such as his barrelhouse ballet Blues Suite, where she personifies the word sultry in the “Backwater Blues” duet, and the coveted female solo Cry, where she devours all three sections with funk, truth, and more funk, telling not only Ailey’s story about women, but we truly believe it’s her story too. Not to be forgotten is Judith Jamison’s Hymn, where in her solo Renee dances to her own words about searching for perfection. In current works like Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, Renee’s embracing magic underscores Brown’s commitment to spirituality. And just last season in Rennie Harris’ Home one couldn’t help but smile when Robinson finally enters offering up some of Rennie’s fast foot-work, hunkered over, grooving as only she could to some serious house music.
After all, titles such as “star” or “the epitome of passion” only come with seasoning. Three decades of seasoning as a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to be exact. In fact, Robinson holds the longest tenure of any female member of the Ailey Company—31 years, and she is the only company member to have performed under all three artistic directors.
Robinson in Ailey’s Blues Suite, circa 1990. Photo by Jack Mitchell, Courtesy Ailey.
The Ailey star says she is proud to have been trained in classical ballet by African-American dance teachers from the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, DC. Among her many accomplishments: She received two Ford Foundation scholarships to the School of American Ballet and a full scholarship to the Dance Theatre of Harlem School. Yet another full scholarship, this time to The Ailey School, would begin her Ailey journey, which she sustained as a member of the workshop company, then Ailey II, until she joined the Ailey company in 1981. Now, after decades of performing Revelations, Renee only gets better. For example, when she returns for the final, “yellow section,” complete with fan, church dress, hat, and stool, the crowd follows her every move. She is the gossip when her fan speeds up to “speak,” or the wife, when she points that fan, scolding her “husband.” Renee says that it’s still new for her after so many years because that ballet brings back memories. Memories like Mr. Ailey explaining how vital it was for them to feel the heat of the sun forcing them to use the fans to cool themselves. Now she happily shares these memories with young company members whom she unofficially mentors.
—Charmaine Patricia Warren
The 1989 telecast of Great Performances: Tap Dance in America, hosted by Gregory Hines, saw Dianne Walker dancing a solo to the swinging, Latin up-tempo “Perdido.” Snapping into her elegant arms-open/wrists-dropped pose, she sailed into a one-chorus solo—tapping the first A section with double-time stomps that lifted onto the tips of the toes; scatting the second A with scissor-steps; murmuring a cascade of rhythms in the stop-time bridge; and finishing with light-skipping trench steps. Looking insouciantly over her shoulder as luscious rhythms spilled from her feet, she was demure and debonair, with the radiant and authoritative expertise of a hoofer twice her age.
At left: Walker in 1998. Photo Judy Robbins, Dance Magazine Archives.
Nicknamed “Lady Di,” the grace, aplomb, cool precision, and supreme musicality of Walker’s tap dancing is befitting of royalty. In her exquisitely lyrical signature number “Emily,” in 3/4 time, she barely lifts her shoes off the floor, casting perfect pearls of sound across the waters. There is no one to approach her in that suspended moment of jazz improvisation.
Walker began dancing by the age of 3, studying tap with Mildred Kennedy (Bradic), who ran the esteemed Kennedy Dancing School in Boston, but her tap renaissance came in 1978. She was a 27-year-old mother of two, living in the Mattapan section of Boston, and working as a clinical psychologist when she met, at a social affair, the black vaudeville tapper Willie Spencer. The very next day, he sent her to the studio of Leon Collins, the master bebop dancer who developed a new blend of jazz tap and classical music. She walked into the studio to see this little man sitting at his desk, adjusting his taps with a screwdriver. “Hi, dumplin’,” said Collins. “I’ve been waiting for you. Willie called and told me you wanted to learn to tap dance.”
Eager, talented, and mature, Walker soon found herself teaching tap to Collins’ Saturday children’s class, thus becoming his protégé, and in 1982 a member of Collins & Company. For young blacks in Boston in the 1980s inculcated with the new rap and hip-hop, jazz tap was not on their radar. Still, Walker managed to impress such young dancers as Derick Grant, whom she cast in a promotional tour of the documentary film No Maps on My Taps; and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, whom Walker took to the Tip Tap Festival in Rome, Italy. There they met “Tap Dance Kid” Savion Glover, whom Walker took under her wing.
Though she pursued a career as a soloist, teaching and mentoring remained Walker’s central passion. Through Collins’ work, she has evolved her own, more feminized, sensuous translation of his style that opens up the body to a more expansive rhythmic experience. Her teaching is based on full-bodied rhythmic expression, musicality, attention to detail, and her core mantra, “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
Walker with student Taylor Ester at the School at Jacob’s Pillow, 2010. Photo by Kristi Pitsch, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.
Walker is ubiquitous in the tap community, committed to making social connections with the young generation of dancers ignited by the resurgence of black rhythm tap. She is considered the transitional figure between the young generation of female dancers—Sumbry-Edwards, Idella Reed-Davis, Michelle Dorrance, Ali Bradley—and the “forgotten black mothers of tap,” such as Edith “Baby” Edwards, Jeni LeGon, Lois Miller, and Florence Covan. Walker is the holder and bequeather of the classical rhythm tap canon, making sure it will flourish with absolute perfection. As she lovingly tells students, “If it’s not right, then what is it? It’s wrong.”
—Constance Valis Hill
As a chief critic from 1977 to 2005, Anna Kisselgoff was The New York Times’ voice on dance. Her mission took her from the Joyce SoHo to Lincoln Center, from the American Dance Festival to the grand houses of Europe, and countless points in between. The performances she reviewed were no less eclectic: ballet, modern, Asian classical dance, tap, Broadway, flamenco, tango, Marcel Marceau, Michael Jackson, and—at the 1988 Olympics—ice dancing and the rodeo. If it moved, she wrote about it.
At left: Photo by Christopher Duggan.
She didn’t like everything she saw and sometimes the feeling was mutual. But when she spoke, people listened. “Anna Kisselgoff, in her years at The New York Times, taught a number of generations of dance lovers not only what to look for and how to see a dance, but also where the dance had come from,” said Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. “She taught us history and gave us a context for what we saw. She made dance an art form with a past and a future, not simply a present.”
The artists she took seriously early in their careers belong in a who’s who of dance: William Forsythe (as early as 1976), James Kudelka, Garth Fagan, Ronald K. Brown, Carlos Acosta, Lar Lubovitch. Her consistent coverage of the Lyon Biennale introduced Americans to choreography that would later be imported by presenters like the Joyce Theater and Jacob’s Pillow.
Dance artists were not often interviewed before Kisselgoff joined The Times as a dance critic in 1968, when Clive Barnes was senior critic. When she began speaking to them on the record, they revealed themselves. In 1974, Jerome Robbins told her, “Now the world I’m interested in is the one where things are not named,” defining the shift in his later work toward abstraction and pure dance. Among her other subjects were Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Pina Bausch, Galina Ulanova, Alvin Ailey, Pearl Primus, and the celebrated Indian dancer Balasaraswati. Often her research involved reading in French and Russian as well as English, supplying historical context.
If the list seems endless, remember that Kisselgoff has had more than 3,000 bylines in The Times, on dance reviews, book reviews, reporting, and obituaries, not to mention a Sunday essay every week for 15 years—roughly 750 of those alone.
Born in Paris, Anna Kisselgoff grew up in New York but returned to study at the Sorbonne and the School of Oriental Languages. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and earned master’s degrees in European history and journalism at Columbia University. Dance was part of her life from childhood: She began studying ballet at age 4 with Valentina Belova in New York and continued for nine years with Jean Yazvinsky, a former member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When she was 7, her mother gave her a book on Isadora Duncan.
Her service to readers and to dance—honored by the governments of Denmark, France, and Iceland—didn’t end with retirement from The Times, a year after stepping down as chief critic. Since then, she has written for the website “Voice of Dance,” the trilingual Italian magazine Ballet 2000, and art catalogues, exploring connections between visual art and dance in the work of Duncan, Andy Warhol, Shen Wei, and others. She has written an introduction to Bronislava Nijinska’s memoirs, done oral histories, and taught at Yale University, Barnard College, and Hollins University. Nor has she entirely left The Times, where she continues to contribute obituaries of major figures. Who else would you call when Maurice Béjart dies on Thanksgiving Day?
Kisselgoff’s range, depth, and above all knowledge have enabled her to speak with dance artists in their language. Through her own medium—words—she has passed that knowledge on to her readers, enhancing their love of dance and enriching their lives. —Diane Nottle