Katherine Barkman Shares Her Experience as a Global Ballet Ambassador

September 8, 2021

Katherine Barkman was born to be a ballerina. From living room performances as a toddler to beginning full-time professional training at 14 (under U.S.-based Russian teacher Nadia Pavlenko), the Pennsylvania native knew she wanted—needed—to dance.

At 18, after sending out more than 50 resumés to companies, Barkman was invited by renowned Filipina prima ballerina and artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde to begin her professional career as a principal dancer with Ballet Manila, halfway across the world in the Philippines. The youngest dancer ever to assume a principal role in the company, Barkman adjusted to life in another hemisphere while debuting the major roles in Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake, Giselle and many other ballets.

In 2018, Barkman met prima ballerina and The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent while competing at the USA International Ballet Competition. Kent subsequently invited Barkman to guest at TWB and, later, to join the company. After moving home to the U.S. in 2018, she made her first stateside full-length debut as the iconic lead in The Sleeping Beauty.

Barkman has been frequently met with rave reviews for her performances and praise for her kindness and insights as a coach and teacher. Currently, she still dances with The Washington Ballet and continues to delight audiences with her characteristic buoyancy, impressive technique and unfettered joy. Dance Spirit talked with Barkman to learn what it’s like to be a global ballet ambassador.

Wearing a black tutu, Katherine Barkman stands in battement relu00e8ve (left leg en pointe on the ground, right leg in the air) to u00e8cartu00e8. Her right arm is fifth high, and her left arm is in demi second.Katherine BarkmanPhoto by Angela Sterling

What is it like to dance as an American ballerina in different cultures around the world?

Katherine Barkman:
I was born and trained in America, but trained in the Vaganova [Russian] system. It really shows how interconnected the world is through dance, because my Russian roots led me to meeting Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, a former soloist with the Kirov, who invited me with this opportunity to dive into the great roles of the Classics in the Philippines.

That was exciting, but also intimidating. You’re in this foreign country with nobody you know. It’s a big culture shock. I’d never lived outside the Greater Philadelphia area and suddenly I was in Asia, having to function as a high-level professional.

I definitely tried to remain open. Maybe being an artist helped—or maybe it helped me as an artist— having to open myself to something so different. It taught me a tremendous amount about the world. I got to see through a more realistic lens.

How do you think dance can be seen as service, not just self-expression or art?

Dance as a form of service became known to me through humbling experiences: the times I was dancing for children in the middle of a gymnasium in Manila. I saw how dance is a universal language. It naturally moved people. I saw that in a very human setting, not a grand theater; it was a gym with a basketball court and kids who were just so stoked to be there—over ballet!

That’s when I realized there’s so much more to this. That propelled my journey of asking, “Why am I dancing?” That led me to turn inward in a reflective way.

Dance made me absolutely joyful, but that’s a shared joy. I’m very aware of interconnectedness, not self-centeredness, and that makes it an act of service. Realizing it’s not really about you, to put it bluntly, is such a relief! It’s too much pressure if it’s all about you. That’s such a burden.

What advice do you have for young dancers?

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s an important part of being a dancer. You don’t always feel good. But you don’t have to label it as a negative experience. Discomfort can be a really positive part of your career.

What are you up to now at The Washington Ballet?

Right now, I have a couple summer performances coming up, really just getting grounded for next season. I’m really soaking in gratitude for being able to be back to doing what I truly love. We have an exciting season ahead.

Do you plan on dancing abroad again in the future?

Of course. That’s the goal. My dream is to be based as an American ballerina, but I just love the experience of traveling and dancing abroad. It affords me so many opportunities and so much growth.