the Ballet
Ballet Encyclopedia

Gelsey Kirkland

born: 1952

“bravura, poise, and power” - Byron Belt, speaking of Gelsey Kirkland

Gelsey Kirkland was born to father Jack, a playwright, and Nancy, an actress, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.  She also had an older sister, Johnna, the favourite.  This favouritism, in addition to her demanding and alcoholic father, in addition to her own perfectionism would lead to problems in the future.

Johnna started attending the School of American Ballet and Gelsey started soon after, starting an intense rivalry between the sisters.

As a student Miss Kirkland was incredibly dedicated - a workaholic some say. When she first started attending the school Miss Kirkland was not very flexible at all and worked on her stretching like crazy  to achieve the flexibility required of a ballet dancer.  She also took extra ballet classes and worked as a model, something she hated, to pay for the classes, and later on quit high school so she could dance more.

When she was fifteen years old George Balanchine asked Gelsey Kirkland to join the New York City Ballet, and two years later she was promoted to Soloist. At this time Balanchine created his new Firebird with her as the lead. Although Firebird was not a success there was much praise for Miss Kirkland.  Later on she danced with her sister in John Clifford’s Reveries and created the lead in Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations.

In 1972 the New York City Ballet toured to Russia where Mikhail Baryshnikov first saw her dance.  Two years later, after he defected in Toronto Mr. Baryshnikov asked her to be his partner, so in September of 1974 Gelsey Kirkland left the New York City Ballet and joined the American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The partnership between Miss Kirkland and Mr. Baryshnikov was incredibly successful - they were the same size and had the same way of disguising difficulties on stage - they were in “perfect harmony in performance.”9

The area of ballet where Miss Kirkland excelled was in the romantic ballets.  With her delicate body and technique of “sewing machine precision” she blew away audiences and critics alike.  Edward Villella described her as having “steel-like legs that are doing the most fantastic technical feats while the upper body is soft and lovely as though nothing were going on underneath” in Time magazine.

Her wonderful expressive ability also made her an excellent performer of modern works such as Anthony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries.  Mr. Tudor created Leaves are Fading on her after which she credited him with teaching her about detailed character development, a skill which would serve her well in the future.

In 1976 her complicated personal life caught up to her.  She had been very concerned about her looks and undergone several plastic surgeries.  She was also anorexic and addicted to cocaine.  Finally she collapsed due to nervous exhaustion and a potassium deficiency and was forced to stop dancing.  This kept her from appearing opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in the movie The Turning Point.

After some time she was able to return to the stage, and what a return it was. She made a moving debut as Clara in Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker and many other ballets.

She met and fell in love with Greg Lawrence and they helped each other out of their drug problems and depression.  He also helped write her autobiographies:  Dancing on my Grave, published in 1986 and The Shape of Love, published in 1990.

So successful was her return to the stage that Miss Kirkland was asked to do a Command Performance in 1986 for Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II with the Royal Ballet, which she did brilliantly.

Miss Kirkland had now retired from performing and has become an inspired teacher and coach.