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Return of the lost ballerina

Adored, then vilified, Gelsey Kirkland is back. But it's no fairy tale ending.

July 15, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

New York — JUST hours before her first performance anywhere in more than 20 years, former ballet star Gelsey Kirkland is onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, not only practicing her own moves but coaching American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko.

This is the only stage rehearsal Kirkland has had for her role in the new ABT version of "The Sleeping Beauty," which the company premiered on June 1 (three days earlier) and will bring to the Orange County Performing Arts Center from Tuesday to next Sunday. But unlike some of her under-rehearsed colleagues, she knows the production in minute detail: Along with her husband, Michael Chernov, and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, she planned it.

"I've had the blessing of starting work 16 months ago," she would tell an interviewer a day later, " ... getting my fingers into what I wanted to do and working with a theater director and mime coach."

At 54, Kirkland needs mime skills for her ballet comeback, but her role as the wicked fairy Carabosse in this unorthodox "Beauty" also involves being the centerpiece of complex lifts and, for a time, even some aerial maneuvers -- though those have been deleted from the production since the New York run. No, she's never done wire work before, or been a choreographer, for that matter, but she's also never been afraid of a new challenge -- and playing someone she calls "a woman who is beautiful on the outside but evil on the inside" is definitely that.

On the crowded Met stage, you can't miss her, not only because she's the only dancer in full costume but because she still commands the extraordinarily focused intensity of her glory days as a classical ballerina. And the welcoming ovation she receives at her comeback debut that night ("A shock," she says) almost convinces you that those days are still here.

Few dancers have been both loved and hated as Kirkland has. In the course of her tumultuous career, she watched her public image go from White Swan to Black Swan, from Time magazine cover girl to pioneer of a new kind of DUI: dancing under the influence. She started out as a wunderkind, becoming the only dancer to have works created for her by the four greatest classical choreographers of the age: George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and Antony Tudor. What's more, she was chosen to be the partner of the art's reigning virtuoso, Mikhail Baryshnikov, after he defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, and she never had a problem keeping up with him.

But even in an age of tell-all celebrity autobiographies, her bestselling 1986 book, "Dancing on My Grave," shocked the fiercely self-protective ballet world with its revelations about her drug addiction, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery and love affairs -- not to mention her startling depictions of Balanchine, Baryshnikov and other icons of the art. The controversy left her virtually unemployable in America, so she finished her career with a brief flare of greatness at England's Royal Ballet, ending as Princess Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty."

The irony of her playing the she-devil Carabosse -- Carabosse the uninvited, Carabosse the spoiler -- isn't lost on her, but she's more absorbed with the practicalities of her current life. Sitting in the Met press room with Chernov (a former Australian dancer and theater director who married Kirkland in 1997), she talks about her years of international teaching and coaching projects -- many of them with Chernov -- and he interjects his own comments, sometimes finishing her sentences as if they're sharing the same thoughts. If her dancing always projected airy lightness and a dimension of personal vulnerability, in person Kirkland radiates a sense of calm leavened with wry humor.

She says it's impossible to say exactly who in the ABT production triumvirate is responsible for the wealth of new choreography in this "Sleeping Beauty." "We worked as a team," she says, "Misha [Chernov] on the dramatic and musical structure, me as the vocabulary person and Kevin fleshing it out in his way. It's very hard to unravel." She and Chernov have staged "The Nutcracker" in the Philippines, but this will be their most widely seen project.

In revisiting some of the subjects that dominated "Dancing on My Grave," Kirkland declines to discuss what she terms "personal relations," even to say when she and former husband Greg Lawrence (co-author of her books) were divorced. However, later in the interview she pauses to say, "By the way, in terms of Greg Lawrence, we're great friends. You can say that."

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