The demands on a professional dancer’s body has never been greater. With ballet companies increasingly adding work by modern dancers into their programming, few companies are as bold as the Washington Ballet. With an entire program by “contemporary masters,” the dancers hang up their toe shoes and glide across the dance floor in bare feet. IVY caught up with Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent on why it’s important to include modern dance works within a ballet company’s repertory.

Photo by Dean Alexander

What’s the difference between modern dance and classical ballet? What are some of the parallels?

All dance is about movement and line through space! Classical ballet emphasizes an extension through the body into space to create an effortless movement, whereas Modern dance is attached to a sense of gravity and grounding pull to the floor. Choreographers are continually influenced by each genre of dance.

In our commitment to expanding our repertoire and educating our dancers and audience, we have created an evening celebrating these American Modern Dance icons that will allow for discoveries and connections to be made.

Why did you choose these three choreographers?

I have a personal attachment to all three of these choreographers! Having worked with Mark Morris, I wanted our dancers to experience the joy and keen musicality of his work. I watched him create “Drink to Me…” as a young dancer in the ’80’s and it was an unforgettable experience.

Celebrating Merce Cunningham’s centennial, “Duets” was the first modern dance choreography I ever learned!

Company B is a longtime favorite and a timely tribute to the late, great Paul Taylor.

Can you elaborate on Merce Cunningham, as this year is his centennial year – what about his work is so interesting for you, and why should we continue to perform his work?

Merce Cunnigham had a fascinating philosophy of the relationship between dance and music, inspired by his longtime partnership with composer John Cage.

My understanding of his approach is that dance and music exist in their own time and place but can also coexist in the same space. The clarity of line in his work I find beautiful, as well as joy, humor and pensive quality. Making discoveries within the work of iconic choreographers is crucial to continued development of a dancer.

Photo by Dean Alexander

What have been some of the challenges of getting your dancers to adopt a new movement style, and even dance barefoot?

Dancing barefoot is very difficult for ballet dancers. Our feet are toughened and calloused very differently than those of Modern Dancers. Also connecting to the floor with weight in the movement as opposed to lifting out of your hips and legs is challenging.

Should an audience member approach watching modern dance the same way as ballet? What if I don’t “get it?”

Watching all dance should be approached the same way you engage with any art form…allow your instincts to guide you! Just as you would enjoy a contemporary art museum or a concert of new music, when the curtain rises and our dancers have the opportunity to share their talent, let the experience wash over you, taking you wherever you like!