Gelsey Kirkland: Speaking from the Heart

July 24, 2007
Last May, after a 13-year absence, Gelsey Kirkland was back at American Ballet Theatre. Kirkland, a dance legend who has been out of the limelight for nearly 20 years, came to New York from her home in Melbourne, Australia, at the invitation of John Meehan, artistic director of ABT’s Studio Company. During her three-week stay she taught classes for ABT’s Studio Company and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and coached various dancers in the main company. Even walking casually through the halls of 890 Broadway where ABT is headquartered, wearing an oversized shirt, her hair untamed around her face, the petite Kirkland (who still looks like she could perform) causes a flurry of excitement. In the classroom, her simplest gestures tell entire stories.
During her stage career—at New York City Ballet, ABT, and finally The Royal Ballet—Kirkland was famous for her ability to bring audiences to their knees. Her dancing combined a tender, almost childlike innocence with strength, speed, musicality, and soul. Her portrayals in ballets like
Don Quixote
, Giselle, The Leaves Are Fading, and Theme and Variations were exquisite. And thanks to video, young dancers are still watching her perform. Baryshnikov’s widely aired production of The Nutcracker, in which she melts into the role of Clara, is perhaps the most well known.
Sadly, in 1984, substance abuse and burnout halted Kirkland’s stage career. Shortly thereafter she co-authored
Dancing on My Grave
(with her first husband, Greg Lawrence), a tell-all book that was also full of insights about the artistic challenges of ballet. Critics who thought dancers should be “seen and not heard” slammed her in the press for questioning Balanchine’s sovereignty and insulting her famous colleagues. Seen as a traitor, she was shunned by many in the dance scene. Three years later, in The Shape of Love, she chronicled her triumphant return to the stage, dancing Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty with Anthony Dowell at The Royal Ballet. It was during this period that she discovered teaching.
Today, Kirkland, 52, teaches in Melbourne and conducts master classes in the United States with her husband Michael Chernov, a theater director and former actor and dancer. Through her interest in the Vaganova teaching method, she has studied with Robert Ray at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia and continues to study and work in collaboration with former ballerina and teacher Nina Osipian (a graduate of the GITIS Institute in Moscow and former student of Marina Semyonova). Kirkland has also developed a series of strengthening and repatterning exercises which she and Chernov have named Core Dynamics. It includes floor exercises as well as standing upperbody work, some of which are Pilates-related, culled from teachers Dreas Reyneke and Donna Krasnow. She is furthering her love of Bournonville by studying the Fifty Enchaînements, a traditional series of exercises, selected and reconstructed by Vivi Flindt and Knud Arne Jürgensen, available on video.
In this interview, Kirkland lives up to her smart, blunt, and honest image. But there is a lesser known side—funny, warm, generous, and self-effacing. When asked to name the teachers who had the most influence on her, she quickly named the coaches she worked with privately, but then went on to list scores of NYCB and ABT colleagues and choreographers until Chernov interrupted. “You know,” he said laughing, “she will go on to list the entire history of ballet if you let her.” And she almost did.
Kirkland’s return to ABT last spring has many hoping she will find a permanent home back in the United States as a teacher and mentor.
Kate: How did you feel being back at ABT?
Gelsey: It was like returning home. There were so many old friends, colleagues, and memories. It was all positive, no ghosts or goblins.
K: How do you feel about being involved with the Studio Company?
G: All of the dancers are so gifted, and they greeted me with unexpected warmth and enthusiasm.
K: Are there any specific areas of technique you like to focus on?
G: The explosion in bravura technique over the past several decades has been fantastic and I would certainly like to learn some of those tricks! But other, more subtle areas of technique have perhaps been neglected. What I try to do is to see where the need is, and one of the needs seems to be in exploring and respecting the boundaries of classical port de bras and explaining it with an artistic perspective. I like to help people find the beauty inside the restrictions.
K: Is there one particular style that you use in class?
G: It is difficult to speak about style. It is not something you can layer on top of a person; it has to be intrinsically understood. Style and technique should be one, not separate. Both have to be inspired from an artistic perspective. Finally, everything needs to be integrated to create the whole picture. But people like labels, so, at the moment, with the upper body, I am working with the Vaganova “style.” I feel that without the exact port de bras people are left in the dark and find it difficult to feel their épaulement.
K: How do you help dancers with their épaulement?
G: You need time because the body has to feel its own pathways. Many dancers think of performance as the audience… and themselves, that is, two-dimensional. They need to build a three-dimensional world and draw the audience into it. When you radiate épaulement, let’s say in croisé, you are opening up a whole arc of light with your body. You have to open this circle constantly, so that when you move through space you create a state of wonder and the audience discovers this with you.
K: You appear so grounded in class and then onstage you are incredibly light. How does that work?
G: Lightness is created by weight, heaviness. If you are pushing the floor away from you, you feel very heavy and look very light. You can ask any partner who has ever lifted a Giselle who is not jumping for them. It’s about a feeling of weight.
K: How does a dancer become more musical?
G: A person’s body first has to learn to sing in silence. Then you can talk about what you are going to do with a phrase. First and foremost, anticipation. Then, where to rob and steal time: You might delay one part of the phrase, and catch up later. But the extent to which this is done is defined by the character you are portraying. For example, innocence moves in a certain way, and that affects how you use the music. If you are doing a character who is struggling between opposing forces, the movements need more resistance and weight. For example, in Act II of
, Giselle is caught between Myrta, who is trying to pull her into the dark world of the wilis’ bitterness, and her own need to save Albrecht from destruction. Mastering a binding quality in the transitions between the steps is essential in order to see the struggle, and this becomes a musical challenge as well.
K: How does teaching make you feel?
G: Joyous and inadequate at the same time. Joyous because you are sharing something beautiful, but inadequate because your foundation of knowledge is tested.
K: How do you fight the insecurity?
G: I have realized over the years that most of the insecurity I’ve had in teaching comes from a lack of teacher’s training. Organizing the knowledge you have is difficult, and if you know of a system to use it’s very helpful in gathering your thoughts. It’s a process similar to what I experienced as a dancer. Only when I felt organized about the principles of structure, form, and content and knew exactly what I was doing could I calm down, do my work, and move on.
K: Can we talk about the training system in America?
G: I believe the American training in general is not rooted enough in European tradition. There is no national system of training, as in Russia, to prepare people for the great classics. A training system needs to integrate technique, style, mime, acting, character dancing, and historical dance. These things are essential to putting the puzzle together. The focus of today’s ballet training is often primarily athletic. Beautiful port de bras and épaulement however do not appear out of the blue. They need to be built into the training.
K: Do you ever teach acting in the ballet studio?
G: Yes, on various levels. Even if it is not a story ballet, you can bring qualities to variations from a dramatic point of view that are very refreshing. Creating meaning seems like a natural process to me, so that it doesn’t become just about the movement. There’s something behind the technical geometry, but you have to figure it out.
K: Are you working with anyone now in Australia?
G: I am working with a former student, Alexandra Lawler, who has just started to teach, on the Fifty Enchaînments by Bournonville. They’re frustratingly complex, simple, and challenging all at once, and useful as a teaching tool. The enchaînements include very beautiful pas de deux and solo work.
K: What roles would you like to coach?
G: The most interesting ballets for me are the ones that require the exploration of dramatic content. Certainly I would like to coach the ballets I danced:
The Leaves Are Fading, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Don Quixote, La Sylphide, The Nutcracker, Theme and Variations
, and so many others.
K: What life lessons has ballet taught you?
G: Good work comes with team effort, not in isolation. Searching for truth in movement, finding the intention behind movement is essential, like it is in life. The pride of worldly success will not bring any lasting peace and can quite easily destroy a person’s soul. Anything exceptional requires great struggle. That the necessity in ballet to apply strict boundaries in order to attain freedom can be a starting point for finding a similar truth in everyday life.
K: What do dancers have to learn on their own that no one can teach them?
G: Sacrifice. The desire to explore. You can inspire that, but you cannot teach it.
K: If you could give a few pieces of advice to young dancers, what would they be?
G: To work slowly, move against the tide. Listen and look behind the surfaces of things. Look back in history. Look forward to hope and look beyond the mirror.
K: When you look back on your career, what periods of time were most satisfying for you?
G: Three periods. My dancing life at NYCB. I was given so many opportunities there and I danced much of that repertoire, which was a fantastic learning experience. Then there was the great struggle that I had reassessing my work for the more traditional classical repertoire at ABT. Striving to make that transition and to measure up to the level of Baryshnikov was pretty significant. Then returning to the stage in 1986 after a two-year absence to dance
Romeo and Juliet
with Anthony Dowell at Covent Garden. This period of time was most memorable in terms of artistic growth and insight.
Some say that the ’70s and ’80s were a golden era of ballet and just being a part of it was extraordinary. I remember working in the studio with a sense of being on a real journey with the teachers and coaches who gave their time freely to me. I’m eternally grateful to the late Stanley Williams, to Maggie Black, David Howard, Pilar García, Greg Lawrence, and of course to all my long-suffering dancing partners.
K: How would you describe the feeling when you were dancing at your best or dancing your favorite roles?
G: Focused and terrified. Sort of a love-hate relationship. Getting used to that. The focus is the antidote to the terror.
K: Any ballets that you remember as specifically challenging?
Giselle, Romeo and Juliet
, and Don Quixote are good examples because you have to work as a dance-actress. You are trying to breathe new life into the story all the time.
K: Do you ever feel like you left the stage too early?
G: Well, yes, perhaps on the odd occasion. But much more frequently I suspect I left the stage too late.
K: Is there any ballet role that you would like to do again?
G: I have a policy called SOS—Stay Off the Stage!
K: If you got to do it all again, what would you do differently?
G: First, the obvious, which is to have been able to recognize big and small temptations. Not to have fallen so far so hard. To have been less grumbling and angry about what I believe. To be more grateful for difficulties and to have behaved more respectfully to others instead of alienating people. And to have been happy with less, more accepting while striving for more. In short, I would like to be able to do it all again as a grown-up.
K: That’s the difficult thing about ballet—you do it when you are young.
G: Actually, if you don’t mind, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the people I offended in
Dancing on My Grave
, such as Baryshnikov and Peter Martins. I would have liked to have had the wisdom to keep my personal problems out of the work. But that’s life.
K: What are your plans for the future?
G: I am working on another book, but it is only in the planning stage. I have a series of exceptional
Romeo and Juliet
photographs from my final season at Covent Garden and I am exploring a way to present them with text that would interpret the Shakespeare from a dance-actor’s point of view. Also, the artistic director of ABT, Kevin McKenzie, is interested in setting up teacher-training programs that would eventually result in a national presence of an ABT curriculum of training. I would very much like to be a part of this solution for the future.