A dear friend, dancer, choreographer and teacher, Robert Garland, recently shared a video of the renowned ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland, on my Facebook page. Seeing her again led me down a rabbit hole of memory that I thought might be better served as a blog post.
Unfortunately, I only ever saw Gelsey perform on video but even the force of her two dimensional image was enough to change the way I thought about dance. The first time I saw her was in fact in Robert’s apartment. We watched her perform in Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker.” This was back in the days of VCRs and I repeatedly asked him to tediously rewind to her Sugarplum solo so I could etch it in my memory forever.
Among other things, I was amazed at her pointe work. It wasn’t simply that she had the sort of beautiful, high arches that dancers crave. It was in how she used her feet. They were like sensuous tongues lapping the floor in a kind of prayerful reverence with each step.
During my own training, the only note I got at my yearly evaluations was that I had to work on my feet. After seeing Gelsey that first time, I suddenly knew that the feet could become as expressive as hands, as eyes. While practicing, I would sometimes imagine that eyes were at the soles of my feet, seeing, expressing and being seen. Arthur Mitchell, my director at Dance Theatre of Harlem offered rare praise at my transformation.
Around that time, I could often be found studying Gelsey’s videos at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. This reminds me of something Robert used to say: “People often mistakenly assume that dance is not a studied art form.” Well, I can assure you that it is. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time watching dance if you want to dance well. I learned as much from watching great dancers as I did from teachers and I watched them in class, rehearsal and performance.
In Gelsey I witnessed a pure vessel. By that I don’t mean that she was a pure human being. Her struggles with anorexia and drug addiction are well known. By a pure vessel I mean that when she danced, she was in complete service to the art form and to the Spirit that danced her. As such, she elevated ballet to such an extent that nowadays I am often grieved to see it reduced to a kind of soft porn by certain contortionist ballerinas.
For all the Spirit that shone through Gelsey’s dancing, she seemed to have an intellectual center. She was analytical when it came to her work and she needed to understand every moment. It is useless to tell someone with an intellectual center, “Don’t think. Just do,” as choreographer, George Balanchine, once make the mistake of saying. I wonder if one of the reasons Gelsey had to leave the New York City Ballet is because she needed room to be smart!
I do not mean to imply that City Ballet dancers are not smart. All dancers at that level have a kind of genius. I just mean that Balanchine seemed to prefer his women a certain way: young, anorexic and worshipful. Gelsey needed to find a way to worship her own substantial genius.
It is regrettable that after leaving New York City Ballet, that genius was overshadowed yet again by another male, namely Baryshnikov. That would drive anyone over the edge. Nevertheless, Gelsey bestowed her gift to so many, including me, and I don’t think I could thank her enough for all she gave and at such cost.