July 24, 2007
Gelsey Kirkland was one of the great ballerinas of the 20th century. As a dancer, she had beautiful line, quicksilver speed, and limbs that floated into arabesque as naturally as a butterfly alighting on a flower. But there was also a compelling paradox about her dancing. On the one hand, she had a sweetness, a vulnerability that made you want to reach out and protect her. On the other, she threw caution to the wind, fiercely inhabiting each role to the fullest—even to the point where it seemed dangerous. So watching her, you could be close to tears while simultaneously in awe of her fearlessness. Simply put, our hearts went out to her. In the 1970s and 80s her performances were unforgettable, and a whole new generation has gotten to know her via video.
Last spring Kirkland, who now lives in Australia, came to New York for a teaching stint at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Dance Magazine associate editor Kate Lydon, also a teacher at the JKO school, spotted her in the corridors. Having been transfixed by Kirkland in videos, she was eager to interview her for our “Teacher’s Wisdom” column. After the interview, she left me a voicemail saying she was laughing and crying at the same time, so stimulated was she by her conversation with Kirkland. The story grew into a feature.
When we realized it would be a cover story, our new art director, Ragnar Johnsen, flew to Melbourne to direct the shoot. The beach down the street from her home happened to be spectacularly beautiful—and cold, since June is a winter month down under.
But Kirkland was as game to do the shoot as she was to speak her mind. The same fearlessness and sensitivity that she brought to the stage emerges in this interview. As a dancer Kirkland faced the challenges of ballet head on, meticulously seeking truth in performance. Clearly, as a person she also seeks truth, and this gives rise to a few surprises in the interview.
Not every dancer can soar to the heights that Kirkland did. Some reach a plateau at the corps level—which, of course, is honorable too. In “The Silent Majority,” writer Joseph Carman takes us on a tour of the rewards and the frustrations of a corps dancer, and Dena Abergel of New York City Ballet offers 10 tips for new corps members. Ultimately, whether you’re the next Gelsey Kirkland or dancing in the corps, a good dancer never stops striving. The idea is to give your all, no matter how partial your part.
Editor in Chief