GELSEY KIRKLAND ON THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE

I was recently reunited with an old friend on Facebook and, on realizing I was now a bit of a dance fanatic (I know him from my lawyer life), he asked me what I thought of Gelsey Kirkland. Unfortunately, by the time I moved to New York all the major stars of yesteryear had retired. So I never got to see her or Nureyev or Baryshnikov or Makarova or any of the others dance live. He said Kirkland was his favorite, “pure magic.”

I love so many of today’s dancers of course, and, from what I’ve seen from videos of yesterday’s stars, many of today’s seem every bit as good. But of course they are nowhere near as famous.

I mean, when my friend told me Kirkland was on the cover of Time, I couldn’t believe it! A dancer on the cover of a major magazine, could it be? So, he sent me the cover article. Wow.

He also sent some videos: here is her Nutcracker, and here with Baryshnikov in Quebra Nozes (which I’ve never seen before; it is really beautiful), here her Don Quixote (also with Barysh). And here, her Juliet (MacMillan’s!, with Sir Anthony Dowell). Have also been ordered to read Dancing on my Grave, which looks rather fascinating and is next on my list.

20 Comments

  1. Ooooh let me know when you finish “Dancing on my Grave” and we can discuss…haha. Controversial but fabulous book.

    Gelsey is still amazing. She teaches at Steps and I've taken her class a few times and they way she uses her upper body even just when teaching is gorgeous.

  2. Thanks for the link.Misha was terrific, Gelsey not so. Vishneva dances circles around her in this role.

  3. I saw her in Leaves Are Fading and she made all the other girls on stage look like elephants….

  4. I saw her in Leaves Are Fading and she made all the other girls look like elephants.

  5. You'll love Dancing on my Grave; quite the captivating read and Gelsey provides some juicy gossip about NYCB legends. She co-wrote the book with her then-husband, Greg Lawrence.

    I read it when I was in high school. From what I remembered, Gelsey goes into intimate detail about her anorexia struggle, cocaine use, cosmetic surgery, romantic flings with danseurs and her strive for on-stage perfection. And what a performer she was, especially in Coppelia.

    Would it be nice if a ballet dancer was featured on the cover of a major magazine, just like Gelsey on Time's cover? I only wish ballet dancers today received more recognition.

  6. Gelsey is a pretty polarizing person. People either love her or hate her.
    Her immense talent cannot be denied whether you like her personality or not. She fought her demons(drug addiction, low self esteem, intense perfectionism), conquered them and for the most part emerged a wiser and happier person.
    You should read Dancing On Her Grave Tonya, but I actually prefer her second book The Shape Of Love. It chronicles her comeback with The Royal Ballet dancing Juliet and Aurora. The process she uses to bring those characters to life on stage is engrossing and ultimately very moving. Sometimes you really have to go through Hell to reveal your true self and she comes across much more likable and compassionate in the second book.

  7. Did not know Gelsey wrote a second book. Have to check it out! Thanks Susan!

  8. I so cannot wait for your review of “Dancing on My Grave” though I am completely shocked that you have not read it yet… You really missed out on the last real heyday of dance in New York which occurred in the late 70s/early 80s and there is a lot of really “interesting” reading out there for you to dig into.

    I love the ballet more than any of the arts but we are all well aware that it is not a pretty business under the surface and what these dancers go through to get where they are is sometimes frightening… I have a very good friend who danced during the Gelsey/Baryshnikov era and the stories are amazing and from what I hear it hasn't really changed… Same characters, different cast… But whatever, I will always love it.

    Enjoy the read!

  9. Gelsey's performances were very uneven and depended truly on the state of her health and strength. She's kind of unique as a Balanchine trained dancer who turned “classical” and tried to remake herself as a Russian dancer. I don't think I've ever seen a ballerina have so much talent in so many areas on stage, perfect technique (when she was healthy), lightning quick feet, strength, lightness, lyricism and incredible mimic ability.

    At her best I've never seen a dancer come close (see the Nutcracker excerpts) and at her worst you wondered if she was going to die onstage (see the Don Quixote, which was one of her great roles when she was healthy). I never got to see her Giselle but I've been told and read many times that it was the best Giselle ever performed by an American woman and possibly only equaled in history by Galina Ulanova.

    As for the cover of Time. She was a STAR! Even sick and thin onstage she gave off something special. So was Baryshnikov. I've seen many dancers of todays era and while many or them are superlative, none of them resonates with that STAR thing. Opera suffers as well. With the departure of people like Sutherland and Pavarotti opera does OK, but not like it did. When stars re-emerge so will classical culture.

  10. My experience exactly. Compare videos and as good as Plisetskaya is, she comes off looking like a hippo next to Gelsey. I love MP. I just never watch her videos after watching an anorexic dancer. 😉

  11. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    I can imagine how she'd make others look like elephants — she is sooo tiny! But I still love different body types. Especially if a larger man partnered with a larger woman — then she doesn't look as huge. In something like Leaves though, where they're all dancing together, it would be hard not to compare!

  12. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Yeah, I didn't know she wrote a second book either. I'll definitely have to check out both!

  13. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks so much for all the informative comments, you guys; it's so fun to have people who know ballet so well and have seen so much reading this blog! I didn't get to New York until the mid-90s and then I was so busy with law school I really didn't start seeing a lot of dance until the late 90s, so I really did miss out on the heyday. I will definitely write about the books as soon as I've read them!

  14. I consider myself lucky both to have seen her often in her early years and to have left NY in time to miss her decline. She was a phenom in the same vein as Ashley Bouder in her teenager years with NYCB – I believe that Mr. B revived T&V and Firebird specifically for her when she was around 17. In addition to the technique, speed, combination of strength and lyricism etc her star power and theatrical sense were uncanny. It went beyond simply theatrical sense, though. In “story ballets” with ABT she had the ability to make you feel that you were seeing straight into the soul of the character she was portraying. I would hesitate to agree that her Giselle was the best ever outside of Ulanova – but it was right up there with Fonteyn, Fracci & Makarova who remain my gold standard for the role. In fact her Sylphide & Giselle were both so powerful that I still remember details now, over 30 years later. I understand that there is black and white film of her Giselle in the research collection at the Lincoln Center branch of the NYPL. It was recorded without sound with a piano accompaniment added later. I've never had the time to go over and try to see it but it's on my list of things to do when I find the time!

  15. When you do let me know and I'll go with you. I've wanted to see that since I was a teenager. I had no idea there was anything like that on film. She is way too under-represented on video. And I agree with everything you say. I had always wanted to see her dance again. I remember when ABT had a big gala in the late 80s and GK was going to be there but everyone was unsure if she was going to dance. I asked Twyla Tharp (who went to my gym) if Gelsey was going to perfrom and she responded “who ever knows what Gelsey will do?” She wound up not taking the stage, sadly. I'm surprised Twyla told me anything. Kirkland was NOT generous to her in her book. In fact, she kind of trashes her completely.

  16. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Wow, thanks for all that Susan. You have such a way with words! And thanks for letting me know about the Giselle in the library. I don't think I've ever seen a truly breathtaking Giselle. I definitely want to check it out. I'll let you know when I do.

    That's hilariously cool that Twyla Tharp went to your gym, Jondavwal, and you talked to her!

  17. About 10 years ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of getting to know Gelsey when she visited our local ballet company to teach master classes for two consecutive years. At the time, she was living in Australia with her current husband, Misha Chernov. Gelsey is one of the sweetest, most generous people I have ever met. Her husband, on the other hand, was a complete jerk — overbearing, haughty, downright nasty. He tried to pass himself off as Russian (with a name like Misha) and a doctor, no less, but I later found out he's as American as apple pie (though not as sweet!) and was an orderly in an ER.

    My thoughts on her track record with men is that she had an overbearing father (Jack Kirkland, playwright), and overbearing director (Ballenchine, who said she was fat at age 14 and was the impetus for her eating disorders), and overbearing, narcissistic boyfriends like Baryshnikov and others. After getting to know her, I believe that she feels she needs a man in her life to be complete, and her self-esteem is in the basement. She even confided in me about some of the fights she'd recently had with her jerk of a husband. I wish we were close enough for me to tell her how I really feel and to encourage her to stand up for herself and feel comfortable in her own skin. She is very fragile and makes you want to take care of her.

    I was so happy to see that she is back in NYC and working again, and I wish her every happiness. I just wish she felt confident enough to be her own person, without a man to tell her what to do.

  18. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thank you for commenting, Twinkletoes. Wow, that is too bad. I hope she gets her confidence up. I know far too many women like that… I saw her do an open coaching for ABT's then upcoming Sleeping Beauty production at the Guggenheim's Works and Process (this was a little over two years ago now), and she seemed really engaged in the project. I think she was the head coach on that (I can't remember the actual term), and she played Carabosse in a few of the productions and did very well.

  19. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thank you for commenting, Twinkletoes. Wow, that is too bad. I hope she gets her confidence up. I know far too many women like that… I saw her do an open coaching for ABT's then upcoming Sleeping Beauty production at the Guggenheim's Works and Process (this was a little over two years ago now), and she seemed really engaged in the project. I think she was the head coach on that (I can't remember the actual term), and she played Carabosse in a few of the productions and did very well.

  20. GELSEY KIRKLAND, BALLET GODDESS IN AMERICA by Dane Youssef

    Gelsey… now here is the definitive name of the great American ballerina and perseverance in the face of life at its ugliest and seemingly most impossible.

    Although relatively well-known in the field of ballet, mostly for her partnership with ballet cornerstone Mikhail Baryshnikov and her tell-all autobios about what really goes on in the wings, backstage at the ballet.

    And Gelsey is one success story. And a thrilling one to hear.

    Innocent-looking, girlish and pretty, this diminutive and emotional legendary ballerina has had more drama in her real life than there ever was onstage. While she was called by Mikhail Baryshnikov himself “the best of her generation,” she was probably more famous for her raging cocaine addiction and off-stage behavior.

    Daughter of playwright Jack Kirkland, she grew up with a destiny for the theatre. Her father put her and her sister, Johnna into ballet classes. Gelsey was slow to learn, her sister's body was more equipped–feet, body shape, limbs and all. But Gelsey wasn't about to be stopped. She put everything she had and more into the dance. Soon, Gelsey and Johnna were admitted into the famed School of American Ballet.

    She became a personal favorite of George Balanchine, who choreographed the piece “Firebird” for her. She idolized him and made him out to be a kind of father figure. But she was crushed when he belittled her ballet idols, Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

    After Mikhail “Misha” Baryshnikov signed up to join the legendary American Ballet Theater, he asked Gelsey to be his partner. She agreed enthusiastically and resigned from NYCB to join him at ABT.

    They danced many roles together: “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Romeo and Juliet.” And Baryshnikov's own choreographed interpretation of “The Nutcracker” with himself in the title role. Gelsey at first refused, and Marianna Tcherkassky ended up dancing the role of Clara in the Washington D.C. premiere of the production, but she finally did the role afterwards, and danced it in the TV version. Believed to be their finest work together, she and Baryshnikov both danced beautifully and superhumanly, and Gelsey was surely at least as good as her much-more famous partner.

    But soon it all came to an end and Misha wound up leaving ABT for the less-glamorous NYCB to learn at the footsteps of Balanchine himself. Misha's biggest dream was to dance Balanchine's “Prodigal Son.” After a long wait, he finally got his wish. He danced with NYCB until Balanchine's inevitable death.

    But Gelsey was too busy with problems of her own back at ABT. Her new partner, Patrick Bissel, a much younger dancer had introduced the lady to cocaine. They had many soap-opera-style problems. Patrick and Gelsey had come together because of their mutual attraction to drugs. Gelsey was destroying her body and Patrick was destroying his body, his talent and even came whiskers away from committing suicide by overdose on several occasions. The two had a romantic relationship (which consisted pretty much of them dancing, doing drugs and sex). They were both fired—and then rehired by ABT for their behavior.

    Misha eventually returned to the famed ABT. He took on a dual responsibility as principal star dancer and artistic director, taking the place of Lucia Chase.

    Gelsey eventually quit ABT and with husband, critic and former cocaine user Greg Lawrence, they packed off and headed for England for Gelsey to dance with the famed Royal Ballet.

    Gelsey was signed up to dance with principal and star Anthony Dowell. The company asked Gelsey which ballets would she like to dance. Gelsey requested “Romeo and Juliet” and “Giselle.” They both, of course, turned out magnificent performances and got the kind of curtain calls every dancer dreams about.

    After getting a hairline fracture, Gelsey had to sit a few out. But after healing, Gelsey leapt at the opportunity to dance “Sleeping Beauty.” Asked who she would choose as a partner, she selected Stephen Jefferies.

    Despite numerous dance injures, a severe drug addiction and all the damage it was doing to her body, Gelsey kept going. Many dancers who had done the same wound up unable to keep dancing and having to retire, or in the hospital, or dead. What happened to her was nothing short of miraculous and a result of just plain determination and heart.

    She even taught a class while she was in London for future aspiring dancers and tutored a young aspiring Spanish dancer with her very first performance of “Giselle.”

    Eventually Gelsey returned to America and ABT. She wrote her autobiographies “Dancing On My Grave” about her introduction to the life of dance, drugs and obsession, and “The Shape Of Love” about her recovery and life-after in London.

    By the time she had returned, Misha had retired. He still dances with his White Oak Dance Project.

    Kirkland and her husband Greg collaborated on one more book together, “The Little Ballerina and Her Dancing Horse” in 1993. They eventually, tragically divorced.

    She went on to re-marry, one Michael Chernov in the year of our Lord, 1997. Chernov himself has had ballet training with the American Ballet Theatre, perhaps the one thing that was missing from her first marriage with Greg. Gelsey is a balletomane through and through, bubbling over every aspect of the craft.

    Gelsey eventually, finally quit– uh, defected from the ABT in May, 1984 and with husband, critic and former cocaine user Greg Lawrence, they packed off and headed for England for Gelsey to dance with the famed Royal Ballet. She appeared as guest artist with the Royal Ballet 1980-86.

    Gelsey was signed up to dance with principal and star Anthony Dowell. The company asked Gelsey which ballets would she like to dance. Gelsey requested “Romeo and Juliet” and “Giselle.” They both, of course, turned out magnificent performances and got the kind of curtain calls every dancer dreams about.

    More than a footnote in ballet. A priceless staple. Let us… never forget.

    As someone who's danced the ballet himself, those like her are to be kept close at heart. Admired, loved… even emulated.

    And always remembered….

    –With Undying, Infinite Aspiration, Dane Youssef

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