Dance Training

Coached by Gelsey

Gelsey Kirkland walks toward a group of teenage students in the middle of the studio. The dancers are practicing the tricky hops on pointe at the end of Swanilda's Act III variation from Coppélia. It's a stressful moment, and can easily read that way from the audience if a dancer tenses up. In her signature long-sleeve button-down shirt and tinted glasses, Kirkland offers a metaphor to better place their upper bodies over their standing leg. “You're practicing for your first child," she says with a smile, leaning over slightly to shake her finger at an imaginary toddler. The imagery doesn't just help the dancers better align their bodies; it gives them a physical focal point, out of the mirror and back into Swanilda's world.

For an hour and 10 minutes, Kirkland continues breaking down the same short section of the variation, with students divided into groups of four. Most corrections concern the eyes, rib cage, épaulement and port de bras. This kind of detailed coaching is a luxury most dancers never receive, yet it's par for the course at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet's summer Classical Repertory Workshop. The program offers advanced students a chance to study iconic roles under Kirkland. Her goal is clear. “It's important for dancers to understand how classroom technique, especially upper body technique, is related to the characters you create," she says. “You can't look a certain way in class and another way when you decide to create a character—it has to be joined."

Learning From a Legend

A principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre during the 1970s and '80s, Kirkland became famous as much for her struggles with perfectionism, eating disorders and drug addiction as for her portrayals of 19th-century classics. She chronicled her troubles and successful recovery in her autobiography, Dancing on My Grave. Yet the book also revealed an intensely analytical mind, one she channeled into teaching after she retired.

Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov, a former actor and dancer, founded GKA in 2010. The school has grown quickly, offering both full-day training and programs after school. Its curriculum is Vaganova-based, with a distinct emphasis on alignment, coordination and dramatic development, and also draws on Bournonville training. The pair added the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, a studio company, in 2013. Two years later, the school relocated to a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn, with four large studios and a 300-seat theater.

The industrial space easily accommodates GKA's four summer programs, three of which—the Classical Repertory Workshop, the Junior Dance Intensive and the Fast Track Program (a technique-based immersion course for less advanced students)—run simultaneously from June to early July. The Pre-Professional Intensive, held afterwards, is a more traditional summer program, while the Classical Repertory Workshop focuses distinctly on studying traditional repertoire. It offers advanced students the opportunity to dig into the classical cannon's most famous principal roles.

A Typical Day

Photo Courtesy GKA

The workshop accepts roughly 40 to 60 students (many of whom train at GKA year-round) split into several levels. Each day begins with core dynamics, a Pilates-based class that focuses on bringing the body into proper alignment. Technique, pointe and men's classes follow. Some students also take Chernov's remedial class, in which Chernov leads discussions and simple exercises on technique basics that dancers rarely have time to analyze otherwise. Each class has a specific focus, such as how to properly use the hips and turnout.

The second half of the day is devoted to repertory, with students learning different variations and group dances from the same ballet. The emphasis is strictly classical. “Because it's the most difficult," Kirkland explains, noting that students must understand classical fundamentals before moving on to freer neoclassical or contemporary styles. All students receive coaching from Kirkland, as well as several other GKA faculty members.

Finding Artistry in Technique

Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is no performance component. Instead, students give an informal showing for parents on Friday afternoons. “A performance creates pressure," says Chernov. “If you really want to dissolve into the work, it's better not to have an exam."

Former GKA student Megan Schwuchow appreciates that aspect of the program. “To me, artistry is more challenging," she says. “You feel like you're able to make mistakes and grow from them because you don't have to worry about performing."

Unlike the Pre-Professional Intensive, the Classical Repertory Workshop does not offer courses in acting or mime. Instead, Kirkland and Chernov stress the connection between classwork and character development. In other words, physically embodying an onstage persona begins with technique, rather than facial expressions and gestures. “Proper fifth position, the body mechanics of allongé—they've all been built into these variations," says Kirkland. “Your instrument has to be trained specifically or you can't do the second layer of acting."

Indeed, it's easy to see how her corrections in technique class translate to her coaching sessions. In both, she stresses which direction the head, body and eyes project during each step, and how to coordinate them. Her goal is to help students rely less on their image in the mirror and more on feeling their body from the inside. “If you're stuck in the mirror," says Kirkland, “that translates to the stage—it becomes just about you instead of your character."

While GKA teaches an interpretation of the Vaganova method, Russian training isn't necessary to get into the program. Neither is a picture-perfect body type. “Mainly, does the person have enough facility to do the exercises and are they interested in learning?" says Kirkland. “Students who are new will get a sense of character just by practicing what they're doing in class and how it relates to the variation. This simplicity is very difficult to achieve in a short amount of time—but at least they start to witness how it's all connected."

Show Comments ()
PC Kevin Berne, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.


Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Ballet Zaida; Courtesy Agnes Muljadi

Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body

When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:

"Dance isn't for everyone."

This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.

Keep reading... Show less
A leaked survey reveals trouble at Paris Opéra Ballet. POB in Balanchine's "Emeralds." Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

The #MeToo movement has made its way to France's biggest ballet company.

An anonymous survey recently leaked to the French press revealed major turbulence at the Paris Opéra Ballet. The Straits Times reports that the survey was conducted by an internal group representing POB's dancers. In it, there are numerous claims of bullying, sexual harassment and management issues.

Nearly all of the dancers (132 out of 154) answered the questionnaire, but they didn't know it would be made public. (Around 100 of them later signed a statement saying they didn't consent to its release.)

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Brandon Sterling Baker never tries to make it a "light show." Photo by Lora Robertson, courtesy Baker

He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.

He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.

Keep reading... Show less

Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.

For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.

Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Yes, we will listen to any life lessons this man has to share

What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.

At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.

Keep reading... Show less
Cathy Marston is one of a dozen choreographers premiering a new work for San Francisco Ballet during the festival. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.

"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"

Keep reading... Show less
Olga Smirnova. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Several weeks ago, Youth America Grand Prix announced that the lineup for tonight's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater would include Bolshoi Ballet principal Olga Smirnova and first soloist Jacopo Tissi. But an article in Page Six published last night states that Smirnova and Tissi were denied visas to enter the US.

YAGP organizers "believe the Department of Homeland Security's decision may be motivated by the myriad tensions between the superpowers," says the piece, noting that "Smirnova is so revered in Moscow that her treatment could create a Russian backlash."

Read the full story at

Uri Sands leads TU Dance in rehearsal. Photo by Graham Tolbert Photography, Courtesy TU Dance

Is it any surprise a world premiere by choreographer Uri Sands and musician Justin Vernon, both renowned for the profound beauty and gorgeous musicality of their work, immediately sold out? We're hungry for creative collaborations that take reflective deep dives into what constitutes our humanity—and then there's the undeniable cool factor. Nine members of TU Dance will perform alongside Bon Iver (Vernon's band) during the evening-length piece. Presented as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music Series. April 19–21. The work will also appear at the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 5.


Viral Videos



Get Dance Magazine in your inbox