ASK ANYONE who knows dancer Julie Kent what makes her so successful at age 22 and they'll tell you in a word that she's a natural.
After all, she was asked to join the American Ballet Theatre in New York before she had even finished the 11th grade at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md.
At 17, she made her film debut in the movie "Dancers" opposite Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her rise through ABT, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, has been meteoric, placing her in the ranks of soloists after only four years.
"She was born to be a dancer," says Tensia Fonseca, director and founder of the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda, where Kent began dancing at 8. "She has everything it takes -- a beautiful body, a beautiful face, musicality."
Kent and five other members of the ABT have been in rehearsals in Baltimore all week for "The Nutcracker," which opens tonight at the Lyric Opera House. Kent will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, opposite ABT's Alexander Ritter as the Prince, in the Maryland Ballet production.
Dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem, the New York City Ballet and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater also will be performing in the production that has become a holiday classic. Performances will continue through Dec. 22.
Fonseca, mentor to many young Maryland dancers over the years, says Kent has the perfect blend of talent and soul. "There are other beautiful dancers, but they are mechanical, so flat; they have no expression. But the child that has it comes instantly to your eyes. It's something in the soul. And Julie has it."
The young dancer, who changed her last name from Cox to Kent shortly after joining the ABT, is more practical in accounting for her success:
"I try to keep the focus of my dancing on setting a goal and trying to accomplish it," she says. "If it takes me three steps forward and two backward, at least I know I've taken one forward."
But backward steps have not really been in the repertoire of the young woman who has been meeting challenges in stride throughout her career. As a youth, she spent summers at the American Ballet Theatre's junior company and the School of American Ballet in New York.
In 1985 she won first place in the regional finals of the National Society of Arts and Letters at the Kennedy Center, and the following year was the only American to win a medal at the Priz de Lausanne International Ballet Competition.
Kent was just 16 when she went to New York to audition for the ABT and stunned Baryshnikov, who was then the company's artistic director.
"My parents were not keen on my leaving school that young," she says. "So 'Misha' came up with the idea of my being an apprentice" as a transitional phase while she accelerated her studies and finished high school in Maryland.
She joined the ABT as a full-time member of the corps de ballet in the summer of 1986. It was around that time that Baryshnikov chose her to act opposite him in "Dancers." The Herbert Ross film about a beautiful and innocent young dancer infatuated with the male playing the lead in the ballet "Giselle" was not unlike the real world of dance.
"It was about what every 17-year-old dancer feels," says Kent, noting that she was somewhat overwhelmed by the charismatic Baryshnikov when she first met him.
"He was a very big idol of mine. I was just as nervous as anyone when you meet someone who has inspired you for many years. It makes you awestruck."
Film acting was interesting, but not nearly as demanding physically as dancing, says Kent, who during the regular ABT season rehearses at least five hours a day, in addition to a daily class and performances. ABT's scheduled lay-off during the Christmas holidays allowed the dancers time to do "The Nutcracker" here.
Kent danced featured roles in several ballets before being promoted in November 1990 to soloist, the second-highest rank among dancers in the company and one held by only 15 of its 76 members.
Among her proudest work, she says, was the role of Caroline in English choreographer Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden," which she performed in ABT's last two seasons in New York. She also danced the lead in George Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial," a work known for its technical difficulty.
"They are two very different ballets but equally satisfying," says Kent. "I rehearsed very hard and felt I had accomplished something for myself, for me."
Indeed putting her own personal fulfillment at the top of her priorities may be what has helped Kent survive the fiercely competitive arena of professional ballet.
"I'm really not a competitive person. It's there if that's what you thrive on; but I don't. I have tremendous support from my family and friends. And I know when to focus on something else, when to allow my mind to be busy with other things."