Why I Dance: Kaitlyn Gilliland

April 30, 2014

Gilliland with Rina Barrantes in Intermezzo’s
Verdi String Quartet, section choreographed by Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Sarah Sterner, Courtesy Intermezzo Dance Company.

Even as a student at School of American Ballet, Kaitlyn Gilliland stood out. Willowy and elegant, she had a classical silhouette and a bold, contemporary energy. After training at Minnesota Dance Theatre, at 16 she moved to New York, to SAB. Once in NYCB, she danced featured roles as well as in the corps, in works ranging from Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine to Eliot Feld. She now dances with BalletNext, Intermezzo Dance Company and others.

In 2011, I quietly retired from New York City Ballet and enrolled as a student at Columbia University. People often ask why I left the company; I tell them I was injured. But I had other reasons, too—I remember how defeated and disconnected I felt as a dancer. After five years with the company, judging my success only by parts and promotions, I figured I’d lost my opportunity to live up to what had once been determined a promising future.

Some semesters later, I was a junior, pursuing a a pre-med concentration. I was doing very well in school and felt confident about the impressive list of credentials I’d compiled. In our first meeting, my pre-med advisor gushed about my grades. As he explained the commitment I was about to make, he saw my face falter and hesitated. “It’s a lot of school,” he said, “but it’s worth it, especially if you know this is your calling.” I cried in his office that day. The problem, as I’d realized in the days leading up to that meeting, was that I’d already found my calling many years ago. I’d just lost the courage to pursue it.

When I started school, I deemed myself way too academic for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, a student-run company on campus. One semester, however, I found myself in the studio with then CBC resident choreographer Emery LeCrone and two other dancers. This was the making of Emery’s Untitled, one of the most meaningful experiences of my dance—and college—career so far.

Every rehearsal was time well spent. I was with intelligent, patient artists, who encouraged me even as I fumbled through challenging contemporary sequences that took me outside of my classical comfort zone. Together we created a dance that holds within its steps the memories of those minutes we shared in rehearsal. This dance matters to me.

And my dancing matters to me again. My confidence has slowly returned, bolstered by the knowledge that I can seek out more fulfillment in the creative process. I’ve found it, too, in my work with a diverse group of smaller companies. The financial reality of freelance work is no secret, and my days, spent running from school to rehearsal to the classes I teach at SAB, are exhausting. They’re also exhilarating, because I feel invested—and inspired.

I dance to feel connected: to artists I admire, to choreographers I love, to my fellow dancers, to my students, to my friends, to my audience, to myself. As a senior at Columbia, I’m still bouncing from the lab to the lecture hall, exploring what it is that could be my next passion. Or, at least, my next profession. But it’s the studio that still feels most like home, and the stage that always allows me to express myself with the most ease.

I’ll keep dancing because I’m feeling courageous again. And curious. And I can’t wait to find out where that will take me next.