Ballerinas, according to popular cliche, are supposed to be delicate wind-up dolls.
They must do little but look sweet as they trip innocently--on pointe, of course--through an idealized world of crinoline, roses and applause. They are supposed to be wound up by benign magicians called choreographers, and they are supposed to be eternally grateful for the attention. If anything occupies their pretty little heads--as opposed to their pretty little feet--it must be nothing more compelling than the silent voice that counts their fouettes .
The cliche has not fit the great ballerinas of the past. The most memorable ones have commanded probing minds as well as disciplined bodies. They have been able to convey a personal vision of dance as drama and, in the loftiest instances, dance as a metaphor of life. They have, of course, suffered for their art.
Gelsey Kirkland was never a wind-up doll. Nor, alas, was she the sort of ballerina who could break the mold with impunity. She was, apparently by nature, an insecure individualist, an instinctive doubter, a reflexive fighter and, perhaps, an unwitting masochist. She suffered beyond the norm.
That is what made her performances so exciting. That, we learn from her daring, disturbing and extraordinarily poignant autobiography, is what drove her to the brink of personal and professional ruin.
The use of the past tense may, or may not, be appropriate here. Kirkland is 33 now. Her career need not be over. She made a critically successful return to the stage in London in March after a lengthy self-imposed retirement. She sustained an injury soon thereafter, however, and the future remains unclear.
Dancers are fragile creatures, even under the best of circumstances. The circumstances in Kirkland's life looked like the best, at the beginning and on the surface. But there were problems from the start. The dark nature of her memoir is defined in the dedication:
"In memory of Joseph Duell, 1956-1986, that the cry for help might yet be heard."
Duell was a leading dancer with the New York City Ballet, the company that trained Kirkland and accommodated her first triumphs. His suicide has never been adequately explained.
George Balanchine, the genius who created the New York City Ballet in his own exalted image, admired Kirkland enough to elevate her to principal status when she was 19. He entrusted numerous key assignments to her, and she blossomed in them. Still, Kirkland portrays "Mr. B" as an egomaniac and tyrant who "encouraged his dancers not to think."
She recalls the master's favorite ballerina, Suzanne Farrell: "Her long neck and legs, her exotic line and delicate features, made her Balanchine's perfect instrument. She conveyed a sense of movement, without the slightest pretense of thought or personality. . . . Her success and his fixation led to a company formula."
In order to fit that formula, Kirkland starved herself. "Mr. B did not merely say, 'Eat less.' He said, repeatedly, 'Eat nothing.' " She also remodeled her face and body, embarking on a series of "gruesome medical procedures."
"I would become hooked on the pain," she says, "addicted to the voluptuous misery that bound my sexual identity to ballet, to an ever increasing threshold of anguish. I was on my way to stardom, to the Balanchine look."
At the same time, her personal insecurities led her to a series of sexual adventures designed in part, no doubt, to mask her insecurities and paranoia. The adventures, involving the great and not-so-great, are well chronicled here.
Her professional successes grew apace, as did her professional doubts. Balanchine chose her for the title role in a crucial revision of "Firebird." Her bliss was compromised, as usual, by doubt and distrust.
"Mr. B wanted me to play a bird. I wanted to play a creature who would be something more. I was determined to endow the bird with character, with human compassion and strength."
That determination became a precarious Leitmotif throughout her career. Kirkland regrets having been unable to really talk with her would-be Svengali. Perhaps, she now muses, she was not ready. In any case, the speculation lingers:
"The difficulty with Balanchine, as with many of the Russian men I have known, was that he did not think women were capable of engaging him with ideas, or that Americans were capable of understanding his Russian homeland. We hurt each other in so many ways."
As with many of the Russian men I have known. The passing reference brings up Mikhail Baryshnikov, the charismatic, brilliant, moody, romantic idol who became the Kirov's loss and, for a time, Kirkland's gain. She first encountered him while on a visit to Leningrad with the New York City Ballet.