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By Gelsey Kirkland
David Howard (1937–2013)
A reminiscence by Gelsey Kirkland
At right: Kirkland and Howard ca. 1974. Photo courtesy Kirkland.
The ballet world suffered a great loss when David Howard passed away in August following a stroke. As many of you may know, David became a legendary teacher and coach after dancing in England in the 1950s and ’60s with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, which later became The Royal Ballet. A 2006 Dance Magazine Award recipient, he had a diverse performing career in ballet and musical theater. David absorbed lifelong lessons from choreographers like Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois and would later become a classical innovator himself, sharing his knowledge with generations of dancers.
In 1966, Rebekah Harkness invited David to come to New York City and teach at her Harkness Ballet School, which he later directed while also serving as ballet master for the Harkness Ballet Company. I first met David at the Harkness School in 1973. At the time, I was 20 years old and dancing with New York City Ballet. I was looking for a teacher to help me master the technical challenges of the demanding neoclassical repertoire of Balanchine and Robbins.
I was then a bundle of youthful insecurities, struggling not to be a prisoner of the mirror, but constantly comparing myself unfavorably to other ballerinas, a form of self-torture that many dancers engage in. Always gentle and patient, David had incorporated principles of anatomy and kinesiology into his teaching, which was unconventional at the time. He was concerned that the increasing athleticism of technique was undermining artistry. What made David unique was the love he brought into the studio and his caring attention to detail.
I remember that first day with David. After class, I approached him in the hall and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Howard. How did I do?”
He observed dryly, “Well, a bit stiff, dear.”
Not about to leave it at that, I asked him, “Well, please, tell me what I can do about it!”
With a wry grin, he said, “You could start by bending your elbows. That would make a world of difference.”
I raised both arms and asked, “You mean like this?”
“Well, no, not really,” he said. “You don’t actually just bend the elbow. You release it, which means you first have to release the shoulder. As you release your arm down, you have to resist against that with your whole body. Release and resist.”
That was my first lesson—the logic of the natural use of the arm, how to release shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers to create the illusion of feathery softness onstage. Soon David agreed to become my coach, a role that he played throughout the rest of my career.
David’s studio was a safe haven for us dancers, stars and students alike. He worked behind the scenes, coaching privately, often until the wee hours and without pay. He gave me the ability to master the art of moving slowly while commanding focus on the stage. Eventually, that helped me to make the transition from NYCB’s neoclassical repertoire to the classical and romantic repertoire of American Ballet Theatre.
He guided me through endless moments: the circle of spectacular signature leaps in Act 1 of Don Quixote; the pendulum swing that brings magic to Tudor’s Leaves Are Fading pas de deux; the gravity-defying slow-motion landings at the start of the solo in Giselle, Act 1; the down, under, out, and through pattern of energy that reflects the struggle for eternal life in Giselle, Act 2.
I can only thank David now by remembering, with tears in my eyes, the spirit and knowledge he bestowed to so many of us as a gift. Today, I try to carry that work on with my own teaching, knowing how blessed I was to have had him as an inspiration in my life.
Gelsey Kirkland is the co-artistic director of the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in Manhattan.