These Clips of Gelsey Kirkland are a Master Class in How to Become a Ballerina

November 21, 2018

If you haven’t discovered it by now, Kurt Froman’s Instagram account has become a treasure trove of amazing ballet footage.

Recently, he’s been posting clips of Gelsey Kirkland rehearsing Don Quixote, most likely taken a couple years after she joined American Ballet Theatre. You can watch her breaking down each step, working with her ballet coach David Howard as well as a flamenco coach, and giving herself notes by speaking directly to the camera.

Froman says the full footage is about an hour long (he acquired it a couple decades ago when he was still dancing for New York City Ballet). “When watching the entire disc, what becomes obvious is the inexhaustible, obsessive detail work,” he wrote me in an email. “She sets the bar extremely high and I’m not sure she was ever equaled. All that Balanchine technique is still alive in her body, and she’s very good to bring all the flamenco influences into her interpretation.”

Kirkland was famously fanatical about her work, and watching her process, you can see how that energy created such iconic performances onstage. There are several lessons we could all learn from watching her example:

Don’t Hold Back Just Because You’re “Only” in the Studio

How do you get stage ready? By dancing like you’re on stage. Skeptics could argue that Kirkland seems a bit “extra” here. She’s projecting like it’s Madison Square Garden, and giving so much that one point she even seems to almost fall over her feet when she pivots around. But she’s not rehearsing to perform in a studio—she’s preparing for the stage. And you can bet that those who ended up watching her from the balconies were just as thrilled by her performance as those in the orchestra.

Practice, Practice, Then Practice Again

They say practice makes perfect, and you can see how repetition transforms Kirkland’s jump here. She does it over and over and over. Sometimes she looks like she’s almost marking it just to get the feeling in her body. Sometimes she looks like she’s experimenting with a slightly different initiation or momentum or speed or takeoff or upper body usage. Sometimes it seems she must be doing it again just to practice making it explosive on tired legs.

Be Your Own Coach

In this clip, Kirkland is obviously talking to herself via the camera. Although she’d been working with coaches, she must have been practicing alone and recording the rehearsal to remember how to make the movement work on her body.

Give The Style As Much Rehearsal As The Steps

In this clip, Kirkland is working with a flamenco coach, Pilar (whose last name is unknown). You see the jump she’d been polishing over and over in the earlier clip, but this time it’s secondary to her characterization and the use of her upper body. Kirkland breaks classical ballet lines to incorporate flamenco port de bras into the movement. Doing this makes the character feel more human than the usual Kitri, whose stereotypical, “fiery” personality has little depth. Here, she becomes somehow more fully alive and real, and completely compelling.

Out of all of these clips, my favorite response comes from a commenter called mapeepoo:

Sometimes I think to myself “am I doing enough? Am I 70s era Gelsey rehearsing Don Q?” Then I focus more.

Ditto, mapeepoo. Ditto.