The Dancing Doll On December 29, 1952, a little girl was born into this world with no production or splendor in the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She was awkward and a little overweight, and didnt even speak until well after her second birthday. She lived in a fantasy world of fireflies and princesses, converting the animals on her small farm into mystical creatures inside her mind where nothing could harm her. Little did anyone know at the time that this clumsy and unpolished girl would rise to become arguably the best American ballerina of this century, and then fall to destruction at her own hand.
As a young girl, Gelsey Kirklands mother enrolled her in ballet classes, mostly to keep her out of the trouble she was inclined to get herself in. Her older sister Johnny was already enrolled at the School of American Ballet, so it was natural that Gelsey would follow. When she was eight years old, Gelsey auditioned and was admitted to the school. The School of American Ballet, as well as the New York City Ballet, was founded by and under the direction of ballet legend George Balanchine. His school focused more toward short cuts through traditional ballet training. Balanchine was schooled at the Imperial School of Theatre and Ballet in St.
Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. He later described the program as an accelerated version of his own training. He claimed to have simplified and speeded up the training process by stripping it of unnecessary elements. (Grave 23) His dancers were pushed to go above and beyond the previous standards of classical ballet in their execution of technique, but asked to leave their thoughts and emotions at the door of the studio. Many critics compared his dancers to robots - that they were all shaped to fit the same mold of the Balanchine dancer. Physical memorization was encouraged through countless sessions of drill and grill.
We learned ho to imitate the teacher, not how to create the step In a certain sense, by strict conformity to his demands, it was possible to dance for Balanchine without knowing how to dance. (Grave 24) Over the years of her training at the School, she developed many physical ailments, including bunions and tendonitis, that attempted to cut short her. Kirklands own determination and strong will kept her going through all of this, as well as a fierce and unhealthy ongoing competition with her older sister. It was this energy, strength of spirit and perfectionism that drew Balanchines eye to the development of this little twelve-year-old girl in his school. Eventually, after her father died when she was sixteen, he became almost a surrogate father to her. By the time she was fifteen, she was asked to join the company of the New York City Ballet, and she quit school to devote her time to the ballet.
At sixteen she landed the coveted principal role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and only months later, Balanchine favored her enough to cast her in the title role of his new reproduction of Firebird, the pre-World War I Stravinsky ballet. Kirkland began to interpret for herself the music of Firebird, bringing a classical ballet element (not to mention personality) into the production. As she comments in her autobiography, Every time I attempted to bring drama into my performance, Mr. B[balanchine] tried to thwart me. I interpreted this as a personal attack (93). This was the first of many conflicts between Kirkland and Balanchine that led to her eventual defection from the New York City Ballet.
Shortly after this first encounter, Kirkland refused to take any more classes from Balanchine because the technique he taught was taking its toll and destroying her body. She sought instruction outside the realm of the New York City Ballet that taught her a technique that would slowly reverse the strains she had placed on her body by attempting to conform to Balanchines image of the perfect dancer. Despite this, she continued to dance in the company. At the age of eighteen, she was flying through Balanchines repertory due to her unique ability to fill almost any role in all of his ballets. During the companys tour of the Soviet Union, Kirkland had a rare lack of control concerning her diet, eating more than she should of the exotic cuisine she came across.
This led to an obsessive bout with anorexia that would take all of her energy. She wrote, I wanted to live and dance on nothing. I wanted to empty myself out completely. Purification and punishment seemed to go hand in hand (Grave 102).
Along with this new determination came illness and fatigue, which led to her first encounter with illicit substances. Before one performance, Balanchine gave her a vitamin (which turned out to be an amphetamine) to give her the energy to complete a performance. Invited to dinner by premier danseur Ivan Nagy and his wife Marilyn, Kirkland was first introduced to the idea of defecting from the New York City Ballet to the American Ballet Theatre. With this in mind, she began to allow herself more freedom in the choices she made in her career. She chose to go back to a class taught at the School of American Ballet, leaving her coach and mentor of two years, Maggie Black. Disaster struck as she was rehearsing for one of Jerome Robbins ballets Kirkland broke her foot.
Only after months of healing and rehabilitation was she could dance again. When she was able again, she took classes with David Howard who taught at a different studio. He once again attempted to retrain her from all of the bad habits she had accumulated over the years. She continued to rip through the repertory of the New York City Ballet just as she had before her injury, but this time she added more personal zeal and drama to each of her performances, much to the dismay of Balanchine. At this time, Kirkland embarked on a series of relationships that left her empty and tarnished.
Partnered with Peter Martins in a few ballets, a short involvement developed that extended past the walls of the studio, but had a violent ending. It was through Martins that Kirkland would first meet Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom she would partner with after leaving Martins and the New York City Ballet. Baryshnikov defected from Russia and joined the American Ballet Theatre, and asked specifically for Kirkland to partner with him on the stage here. Soon after his arrival in the United States, he partnered with Gelsey off-stage for a shaky four-year relationship. Baryshnikov brought both joy and pain to Kirklands life throughout the duration of their troubled association. When they first danced together at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Kirkland had no training in the dramatic expression of movement, and had to learn an entirely new set of dance vocabulary in order to perform the romantic ballets she was cast in.
With the ABT, the two toured Europe performing excerpts from romantic and classical ballets in conjunction with the local companies. Back in New York, Kirkland turned toward a miming instructor to help her with the still unfamiliar territory of the dramatic side of ballet. Performing the title role in Giselle, she faced new hardships in the dance arena when it seemed to her that meaning was gradually sacrificed in a misguided quest for authenticity (Grave 189) and the mechanical reproduction of style [had] replaced mimetic discourse (Reflections 44). During this ballet, she realized that Baryshnikov and herself had two completely different approaches to their dancing, causing tension between them and the way they interpreted the dance and executed the movement. In 1976, Kirkland and Baryshnikov were acted to play the lead roles in a film about an American ballerina who falls in love with a Russian star. Disliking the false portrayal of the ballet world and the producers unwillingness to listen to her ideas and suggestions, Kirkland began to look for a way out of the role and found illness.
She became slave to both bulimia and anorexia during the months of the production and, intermittently, for years to follow. Although Kirkland naturally fit the current image [of thinness]she began to exaggerate her image by becoming anorexic (Horosko 54). Because of her disappearing physical frame, the producers decided to replace her. Weighing less than eighty pounds at five feet and four inches, she was only a shadow of her former self.
It wasnt until her mother was near death in the hospital that she realized the danger in what she was doing to herself and worked to cut it out of her life at least, for the time being. She returned to the ABT and partnered with Ivan Nagy on several occasions. She felt as though his artistic approach to dancing more closely matched hers than that of Baryshnikov. Over the next few years, her relationship with Baryshnikov would be off and on, leaving openings for her to date other men, as much as she desired. These random encounters and relationships played many games with her emotions and her mind, as well as giving her an introduction into the world of drugs, which would later take control her life. Pushing forward in her career, Kirkland went on to play the part of Clara in the classical ballet The Nutcracker in 1977 under the choreographic instruction of Baryshnikov.
Following this, she was approached by Baryshnikov to perform to part of the Spanish spitfire, K itri, in Don Quixote. Feeling this part to be outside of her range, she once again sought outside instruction, but this time in the area of Spanish folk dance to get a better conception of the style of movement she should be using. Not too long after this production, Baryshnikov shocked the ballet world by making a move from the American Ballet Theatre to the New York City Ballet just the opposite of Kirklands action years earlier. At this time, Kirklands health began to decline.
[She] was sick, but [she] was not that sick not yet (Grave 245). She continued to dance with ABT, going through partner after partner trying to find a suitable replacement for Baryshnikov. By the spring of 1979, she was so sick that she became injury-prone and undependable as a performer, eventually taking a leave of absence. This leave was intermittent over a six-month period, ending with her resignation from the company. After a brief production of Romeo and Juliet with the Stuttgart Ballet, Kirkland returned to the American Ballet Theatre, now under the artistic direction of Baryshnikov. She was partnered up with Patrick Bissell for a number of ballets, which led to an affair outside of the studio.
Bissell habitually used cocaine, reintroducing Kirkland to the drug, which she claimed was not supposed to be addictive no more dangerous than alcohol (Grave 281). Also, since the drug is an appetite suppressant, she used it to help control her weight claiming that it was better for her than that the ipecac she used to make herself vomit. Recreational use developed into an addiction and coming to rehearsals under the influence became a normal occurrence for her. She was fired from the company in 1980 for missing too many rehearsals. Her life from there became a downward spiral to self-destruction.
She explains it best saying Not only had I been introduced to the drug, I had been indoctrinated into a way of thinking, and I had been initiated into a social world. That world was not located at the fringe of society, but at the center of the respectable mainstream. In the company of fellow users, I did not have to feel ashamed, or defeated, or depraved. (Grave 301) Through her addiction, she continued dancing because of the pressure those around her exerted on her to do so, as well as her own ideas that there was no life after dance.
She left and returned to the ABT several times, and became more of a dancing corpse with each time. Going through several dealers and managers, her addiction grew along with a feeling that she could not dance without it. She had several brain seizures and run-ins with the authorities as a result of her abuse, eventually landing her in a psychiatric hospital. Fighting the hospitals threat to have the state commit her, she made her way out and back into the dance world (still addicted to cocaine) after only a few months. Her addiction spread to include valium and speed within a short while.
No one wanted to dance with the junkie, so she jumped from partner to partner with each passing performance. Baryshnikov was the only consistent partner she had, performing the ballet Giselle with him on countless occassions, each time with rave reviews. But inside, she was falling apart. Slowly deteriorating, she turned more and more towards drugs for escape. On one excursion to her dealers loft, she met another junkie by the name of Greg Lawrence looking for the same man, who apparently was nowhere to be found. Intrigued by their short conversation, they began a relationship.
Both artists victim to their addictions, they could identify with each other and sympathize. After a cocaine binge, they engaged in a enlightening conversation, reflecting on why they do drugs in the first place. With his support and encouragement, she went through her first performance in a long time not under the influence. Knowing that she had to escape from the world around her in order to kick the habit, she had to make a decision about continuing in ballet.
Deciding that if she kept up her habit she would have to quit dancing anyway, she and Lawrence left New York City for a small country home in Vermont. There they gave up drug use all together, indulging in academics and learning instead. After two years of seclusion, Kirkland made her return to the ballet scene in performances of The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, but this would be her last performance. She was essentially exiled from the world of ballet because She bared her less-than-complimentary relationships with Baryshnikov and Peter Martins and dared to criticize George Balanchine both his tutelage, which she claimed led to injury, and certain aspects of his aesthetic. (Perlmutter 69) Then in 1992, the exile ended and she was asked to come back to the American Ballet Theatre this time, as a teacher. Wishing to stay out of the spotlight, she continues in this way, still getting her share of the art and passing on her knowledge to a new generation of dancers.
Works Cited Horosko, Marian. The Personal You: Finding a Balance. Dance Magazine. August 1987.
p 52-55. Kirkland, Gelsey with Greg Lawrence. Dancing On My Grave. Berkley Books: New York, 1986.
Kirkland, Gelsey with Greg Lawrence. Reflections on a Vanishing Art. Dance Magazine. November 1986. p 42-47.
Perlmutter, Donna. Kirkland is Back Teaching. Dance Magazine. May 1992. p 68-70.