Kent, Allegra (1938—)

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Kent, Allegra (1938—)

American ballerina. Born Iris Margo Cohen in Santa Monica, California, on August 11, 1938; youngest of two children of Harry Herschel Cohen and Shirley (Weissman) Cohen; attended the Ojai Valley Boarding School in Southern California; attended Berkley Hall, a private Christian Science school in Los Angeles; attended Beverly Hills High School, Los Angeles; attended the Professional Children's School, New York; briefly attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Utah; studied ballet at the School of American Ballet; married Bert Stern (a photographer) on February 28, 1959 (divorced 1975); married Bob Gurney; children: (first marriage) Trista, Susannah, and Bret.

Considered one of the most faithful exponents of famed choreographer George Balan-chine, Allegra Kent achieved ballerina status with the New York City Ballet at the age of 18 and remained a principal in the company for three decades. Her extraordinary career, however, was accompanied by a somewhat disastrous personal life. "In real life," she once said, "I was a sleepwalker—dance my only light."

Born Iris Margo Cohen in Santa Monica, California, Allegra was two when her mother Shirley changed the family surname to Kent in hopes of escaping her Jewish identity. Later, Shirley Kent would further distance herself by embracing the Christian Science religion. Kent's parents divorced when she was young, and she and her brother Gary shuttled back and forth between them, attending schools in Miami and California. Her half-sister Barbara Kent , the product of her mother's earlier marriage and substantially older, left home when Kent was still young to pursue an acting career. Kent discovered music and dance at the age of 7, but she was 11 before she took her first ballet lesson. That year, she began calling herself Allegra, a name her sister had discarded from a list of possible stage names. Kent began what was to be a trial period of six months of ballet lessons in California, where she lived with her mother and attended Berkley Hall, a private Christian Science school. Proving to be an eager and talented student, she went on to study with a variety of outstanding teachers, including Bronislava Nijinska, Carmelita Maracci , and Maria Befeke . At 13, Kent and her mother moved to New York, where she entered the School of American Ballet (the training school for the New York City Ballet) on a scholarship.

Kent quickly captured the attention of New York City Ballet's director George Balanchine, who offered her an apprenticeship in the company's corps de ballet. In 1953, she became a permanent member of the company and gained her first public notice with a performance of the Viola pas des deux in Fanfare (1954). Later that year, she danced "The Unanswered Question," a segment from Ivesiana choreographed especially for her by Balanchine. While Kent gained stature in the company, her mother kept careful watch, being both wary of Balanchine's libidinous reputation and anxious for her daughter to succeed. She also decided that the time was right for Allegra to undergo plastic surgery to alter her nose and chin. "Then you would be beautiful," she told her daughter, setting aside the Christian Science tenet forbidding surgery. Despite nagging misgivings and her own religious objections, Allegra agreed. The operation was unfortunately botched by a less than competent doctor, and Kent, hating her new face, lapsed into a serious depression, the first of many to come. "For thirty years after this, I struggled with depression and my inability to handle it," Kent wrote in her autobiography Once a Dancer. "I'd fall into the same trap over and over again. Raspberries, whipped cream, ice cream. Exercise would end. I would be embarrassed about my weight, so I'd stop going to class. Sleeping would become a problem.…"

In 1955, for unknown reasons, Shirley Kent had a serious change of heart concerning her daughter's career and convinced Allegra to leave dancing and enter college. After brief stays at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Utah, Allegra followed her heart back to the New York City Ballet and, in May 1956, danced a leading role in Divertimento No. 15 at the Mozart Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. During the company's 1956 European tour, she helped to fill the void left when Tanaquil LeClercq , Balanchine's young wife, was stricken with polio. Despite Balanchine's pleas, Kent refused to take polio vaccine to protect her from the disease, claiming that it was against her religion. Gaining status as a full-fledged ballerina, Kent danced solo roles in Serenade, Souvenirs, and Western Symphone. John Martin of The New York Times (January 1, 1957) praised both the newcomer's dancing and personality. "She has a lissome, well-placed body, an innate gift for movement and a warm and simple personal appeal," he wrote. During the 1956–57 season, she also performed in Valse Fantasy, Interplay, Concerto Barocco, and Symphony in C. At the end of the season, she created the role of a woman who comes to the emotional aid of a blind man in Francisco Moncion's Pastorale.

After a break in the spring of 1957 to appear in the Broadway musical Shinbone Alley, Kent returned to the New York Ballet, dancing memorably as the Countess in Menotti's The Unicorn, the Dragon and the Manticore, and in a number of new roles, including Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun. Her repertoire continued to expand with performances as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake (which John Martin praised as "a disarmingly simple and altogether genuine work of art"), the novice in The Cage, leader of the Bacchantes in Orpheus, Terpsichore in Appolo, and the pas de deux in Agon. Kent reached the zenith of her career in January 1959, when she danced the part of Annie II in the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, choreographed by Balanchine. The role brought Kent new respect as both a dancer and an actress, and made her a national celebrity, although she had little time to bask in the trappings of success. Maintaining a grueling schedule of eight or nine classes a week and half-day practices, her life remained disciplined and controlled by her art. Her dedication paid off. Early in 1960, she created another memorable portrayal as the Sleepwalker in the restaging of The Night Shadow, later titled La Sonnambula. Walter Terry, of the New York Herald Tribune (January 7, 1960), called the dancer "utterly lovely, moving as if she were a disembodied spirit floating across the ground."

Preceding her triumph in La Sonnambula, Kent was to marry photographer Bert Stern, with whom she had endured an erratic two-year courtship that left her, at 21, doubtful about the possibilities of their long-term relationship. Urged on by her mother, who was still concerned about her relationship with Balanchine, Allegra went ahead with the wedding. The marriage proved a disaster from the start, and Kent left her husband after less than six months. This established a pattern of separations and reconciliations that lasted until the two finally divorced in 1974. In the meantime, Kent continued with the New York City Ballet, taking maternity leaves for the birth of three children: Trista (b. 1960), Susannah (b. 1964), and Bret (b. 1967). To overcome her weight gains from pregnancy and bouts of overeating caused by depression, Kent discovered the restorative power of water exercises. She eventually wrote a book about it, Allegra Kent's Water Beauty Book, published in 1976.

In 1962, the New York City Ballet made a historic eight-week tour of the Soviet Union, where Kent became an immediate favorite, especially for her dancing in Agon. In 1963, the dancer won acclaim in two somewhat exotic creations: Bugaku, a Balanchine work in which she danced with Edward Villella, and The Chase, in which she portrayed a man-chasing vixen that is transformed into an appealing young woman. Kent made a European tour with the company in 1965, and the following year captivated audiences with her performance in the Sylvia Divertissement. "Miss Kent swept through the complexities of Balanchine's choreography… with a swift and sweet efficiency," raved Clive Barnes in The New York Times (April 6, 1966). "More dancers should dance like this. Here is Balanchine as Balanchine should be danced—and throughout the entire dance world there is nothing better."

During the 1970s, on advice from a new psychiatrist, Kent sought to supplement her dancing income by opening a school in Scarsdale, New York, where she had moved to facilitate her children's education. At that time, she entered into an agreement with Balanchine to limit her performances with the New York City ballet while continuing to draw a salary. The school eventually became a burden, and Kent returned to her career, though her position with the company had been seriously jeopardized by her absence. She remained with the New York City Ballet until 1982, but in her final years with the company, she only danced on an average of once a season. Just one week after the company let her go, George Balanchine died, marking the end of her career with even greater sadness. "For me, ballet—the continuation of my childhood dreams and the way I chose to rebel against my mother, visually but soundlessly—was over," Kent wrote in her autobiography.

After leaving the company, Kent, desperate for income, held a variety of temporary teaching positions. While in Los Angeles auditioning for a teaching job at the University of California, she met John Clifford, an old friend from the New York City Ballet who was teaching and arranging Balanchine's ballets for various dance companies around the world. Clifford cajoled her into dancing in a performance of Apollo at a benefit in Red Bank, New Jersey, and into joining him for later tours. Dancing in Clifford's Notturno, Kent proved that at 50, she had lost none of her personal charisma. "Kent's very special quality, still very much intact, was always an emotional abandon mysteriously and implausibly registered within a classical line of breathtaking perfection," wrote a reviewer for the Washington Post. "Gelsey Kirkland was the only other dancer I've ever seen who could work this particular magic."

Allegra Kent finally found regular work as the director of a ballet school in Stamford, Connecticut. A flexible contract allowed her to take on other projects, among them dancing assignments and the role of Cousin Ophelia in the motion picture The Addams Family. By the time she had completed her autobiography, which was published in 1997, Kent was happily remarried and apparently at peace with herself. "What I regret is that it took so long for me to emerge into a somewhat normal person who could handle everyday life with easy grace," she writes. "But it did happen."


Kent, Allegra. Once a Dancer.… NY: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1970. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1970.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Kent, Allegra (1938—)

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Kent, Allegra (1938—)