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Three U.s. Ballerinas Find Toeing the Line Is the Toughest Position of All

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“Everything was beautiful at the ballet, “goes the lyric from A Chorus Line, but for three of the best and brightest young American ballerinas, nothing is either beautiful or certain about their lives right now. PEOPLE’s Barbara Rowes reports on them.

Gelsey Kirkland celebrated the new decade by throwing her first party in years. The 40 friends who gathered at her sparsely furnished West Side apartment marveled at the newfound assurance in the 27-year-old star of the American Ballet Theater. They were all too aware of Kirkland’s long history of insecurity. “Gelsey hurts most of the time,” says a close friend. “You want to wrap your arms around her and tell her she’s beautiful.” In 1975 Kirkland was at the height of her career—and in personal despair. While she was dancing rapturously onstage with Mikhail Baryshnikov in such ballets as Giselle, their offstage love affair was ending. He proved not only an inconstant lover, but a relentless taskmaster as well. She became a victim of her own emotions.

Thereafter she suffered a leg injury and in recent seasons often canceled appearances at the last minute. In fact, she became such an unreliable performer, the ABT reportedly had decided in 1980 to limit her performances and stage no new ballets for her. Kirkland’s surprising militance on behalf of the corps during the ABT’s labor dispute late last year may also have affected management thinking. Curiously, walking the picket line with other dancers gave her a sense of belonging that she had never had before. Her increased confidence was apparent to all in the ballet world. Yet three weeks ago her contract negotiations with ABT broke down and she resigned, citing “artistic reasons.” Now she is considering appearing with prestigious European companies in London and Stuttgart. That may be the short-term answer. Kirkland has reason to hope that next fall, when Baryshnikov—a friend again, if no longer a lover—takes over as ABT’s artistic director, she can return to the U.S. in triumph.

Cynthia Gregory, 33, is at the peak of her career and arguably the finest American ballerina of her generation. An on-and-off fixture at ABT for 14 years, she has always demanded new choreography, new and taller partners—she stands nearly six feet on point—and more money. “I guess the company felt I was always fighting,” she admits. Gregory had resigned from ABT and returned twice (in 1976 staying on the sidelines for almost a year). In November, when negotiations on a new contract bogged down, she quit again, and this appears to be the most serious rupture yet.

Since then her husband-manager, John Hemminger, has pieced together a new schedule. She will be dancing with various companies from Vienna to Little Rock. Meanwhile, she works out every day at a Manhattan dance studio. “It makes me a little nervous to be out on my own,” admits Gregory, who has earned more than $100,000 a year. “But I’m not frightened. I’ll learn a lot working with new companies. I believe that things happen for the best.” It is clear, though, that if the right contract were offered, she would make a grande jeté back to ABT.

Leslie Browne was a 19-year-old corps member with the New York City Ballet when she was picked as Gelsey Kirkland’s stand-in for the film The Turning Point. After Kirkland’s illness and loss of weight—to a wraithlike 87 pounds—made it impossible for her to appear, Leslie got the role opposite Baryshnikov. It brought instant fame and an Oscar nomination. Since then she has tried to pursue two careers, as an ABT soloist and an actress. Last spring in Monaco, during the filming of Nijinsky (in which she has a nondancing role as his wife), she nearly died from a burst appendix and peritonitis.

Nowadays Leslie, 22, is living reclusively in Manhattan, on leave from ABT while she ponders her future. Some days she works out in a studio that she has rented; other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort to her. “I was pursuing two careers full blast and it blew a fuse,” Browne says. “I don’t feel I can do both to their fullest potential, but I haven’t figured how to combine the two into one yet. It just went too fast.”