I’m watching Whim W’Him’s “This is Not the Little Prince” with my family on a cold February afternoon. Instead of sitting in a darkened theater, we’re snuggled on the couch. Although I’m weary of nearly a year away from live performance, I’m excited to watch one of my favorite local dancers, Jim Kent, perform a role that brings out his finest attributes. Kent dances across my computer screen, playing an accordion and smiling softly at something in the distance. Kent’s long limbs slice through the darkly lit scenes and each subtle movement creates a new series of shapes and shadows to draw the audience’s eye.
“He looks really cool,” says my five year old. “I like him.”
My kiddo and I agree. Dancer/choreographer and musician Jim Kent has long been one of Seattle’s most riveting artists to encounter. His expressive dancing builds connections with audiences that last well beyond the final curtain. His performances shine with a deep personality and perpetual inquisitiveness about his art form. In Whim W’Him dance company’s digital presentation of This is Not the Little Prince, Kent closes the gap between the stage and his online audience with an exacting, emotional performance. As the Petit Prince, Kent glides and spins around Karl Watson’s Antoine, connecting with the dancers around him while drawing audiences into the wordless story of love, loss, grief, and regret.
Although Jim Kent’s general persona is somewhat understated, he doesn’t need to shout to be heard onstage or off. “Humble grace, with length in limbs that break boundaries,” says Seattle dance artist Ellie Sandstrom of her friend and colleague. Combined with a solid mastery of ballet and contemporary dance technique, Kent’s quiet grace and uniquely expressive artistry has rendered him one of Seattle’s most prolific and loved dance artists. Along with a ten-plus year career with contemporary ballet company Whim W’Him, Kent has collaborated with performance art collective St. Genet, celebrated choreographer Mark Haim, Princess Grace Award winner zoe | juniper, Jody Kuehner’s Cherdonna Shinatra, choreographer and filmmaker Dayna Hanson, Seattle Dance Collective, and others.
“Jim represents the full spectrum of an artist,” says Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers. “He embodies genuine youth, excitement, imagination. He’s a muse.”
Jim Kent didn’t always want to be a dancer. He took his first ballet class as a freshman musical theater major at Minnesota State University where, Kent says in a phone interview, he discovered a cultural and artistic connection to dance that he hadn’t experienced in musical theater. But it wasn’t an easy road. Most ballet dancers begin studying at a young age, honing their bodies and brains to the very specific alignments and movements of the craft. Developing the new neural pathways necessary in ballet technique was hard, Kent says, and required an immense amount of vulnerability and bravery.
“There was something special about port de bras and the spatial pathways and anatomy that felt familiar to me,” Kent explained. “It was definitely difficult to program those new pathways and I was embarrassed in a way but I pursued it.”
In 2002, Kent moved to Seattle to study dance at Cornish College of the Arts. “Dancers were my people,” he said. Even during a global pandemic that finds most of the nation’s performance stages closed, Kent continues to find his people and make art. For Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2021 digital season, Kent performed Susan Marshall’s famous duet, Arms, partnered with PNB artistic director Peter Boal. Filmed inside the PNB studios and fully masked per CDC guidelines, Kent and Boal performed Marshall’s 37-year-old choreography with immense physical strength and focus, their expressive upper bodies alternately weaving together and pushing apart in a stunning display of the power of human connection.
Collaborator, muse, dancer, choreographer, musician, accompanist: Jim Kent’s career in the Seattle dance scene wears many hats and spans nearly two decades. A frequent accompanist for local dance classes, Kent had an eight year run at the piano for Ellie Sandstrom’s popular ballet classes at Velocity Dance Center. “One of my favorite people to work with,” recalls Sandstrom in a message exchange. Sandstrom and Kent also performed together with Scott/Powell Performance in the early 2000s, and in choreographer Mark Haim’s famous Goldberg Variations.
Kent is among the fortunate few to have a sustaining career in dance. His longtime job with Whim W’Him enables Kent to dance for a living, he says, as company director Wevers has made it a mission to pay his dancers a livable wage for their 30-week yearly contract. In addition, says Kent, Whim W’Him’s model of “centering new creations and choreographers who are sometimes new to Seattle” is instrumental in his loyalty to the company. “Olivier [Wevers] gives creative control to new choreographers, and that’s daunting at times because your boss and the power dynamic change constantly. I owe a lot of my growth as an artist to that prioritization of new work, and I’ve stayed because every person I have worked with in the company is just the best. I love this crew, we’re a tight family and they’ve given me so much life and inspiration.”
Kent returns this inspiration back to the artists who surround him. Perhaps due to his late start in ballet and professional dance, Kent’s technique and artistic language isn’t trapped by the sometimes strict and suffocating body memories of growing up at the barre. He has a firm grasp on classical ballet technique but isn’t hindered by it; his long limbs will create elegant lines one minute and cut through space in the next, defying the viewer’s expectations and traversing dance genres in a single movement. Untethered by a loyalty to any specific dance tradition, Kent has the ability to execute choreography from many different artists.
As one of three Grecian muses in Jody Kuehner/Cherdonna Shinatra’s 2014 production of Worth My Salt, Kent’s physical performance is subtle but his presence carries intense emotional weight. Kuehner’s evening-length piece about gender equality and identity is effective, smart, and captivating due to a delicate balance of poignancy and humor. Kent’s straight-faced supporting role to Cherdonna’s caricatures is that balance, whether he’s carrying her body around the stage or crouching behind her as she writhes in emotional pain. “Jim is the perfect performer for me, he can literally do anything movement-wise but can also be funny and is a great actor!” says Kuehner.
Kent’s talents have led him to repeat performances with some of Seattle’s most popular choreographers, including artist collaborative duo Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. Kent performed in the zoe | juniper retrospective We Were at the Frye Art Museum in 2015, and then in Scofield’s 2018 commission for Whim W’Him, This Mountain.
“It was awesome experiencing Zoe [Scofield] in the context of Whim W’Him,” says Kent. “I was the only person who had worked with her before and it was a kick to experience the other dancers experiencing Zoe for the first time.”
That experiential approach to his work is perhaps one of the aspects of Kent’s performance that make him so special. While many dancers can make a career out of particular artistic styles or physical talents, Kent melds a range of those talents with an ability to communicate a whole new experience to his audience, every time. Kent leaves an impression on the people he meets, works with, and performs for: the impression that dance, above all, is an experience to be cherished and shared.
“The [Whim W’Him] dancers call him ‘the mayor of Seattle’ because everyone knows him!” laughs Wevers. And it’s true–widely known, respected, and loved throughout the Seattle dance world, Kent’s career has switchbacked across genre boundaries, making lasting impressions no matter what stage (or screen!) he graces.