February 28, 1977 12:00 PM

At age 8 she was dancing six hours a day. At 15 she became the youngest member of the New York City Ballet, the latest in a succession of “baby ballerinas” nurtured by George Balanchine. He choreographed Firebird for her when she was 17, the company’s youngest soloist. Two years ago, at 22, Gelsey Kirkland joined the Russian star Mikhail Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre. It was a partnership that was expected to rival Nureyev and Fonteyn.

After four months of intensive rehearsals, Kirkland and Baryshnikov made their debut a week before Gelsey’s 23rd birthday. Onstage they looked as if they had been dancing together forever. But behind the curtain, the pace and pressure began to take their toll on Gelsey. “The first year with ABT I learned 13 new roles,” she recalls. “Most were lengthy ballets, more complicated than I was used to. I have suffered from tendinitis since I was. 13, and it flared up again until the pain was paralyzing. There were times I prayed I’d be sick so I wouldn’t have to go on.”

Inevitably her performances suffered, and tears of self-recrimination often followed. Afraid of not living up to Baryshnikov’s expectations, Gelsey grew more insecure. By late last spring, she was shockingly thin and emotionally fragile. In August she was replaced as Baryshnikov’s love interest in a film about dance, The Turning Point. By then Gelsey was exhausted and disheartened, her body “unbalanced by the crazy things I’d put it through.

“I had no reserves,” she recalls. “I couldn’t eat. I danced on sheer will.” By summer’s end she virtually stopped performing. “Two years ago when Misha asked me to come to ABT,” she continues, “I had wanted it so badly. But the fear and responsibility of what he and ABT expected was agonizing. Suddenly I was lost. My God, what a lot to live up to.” Much of her difficulty, she says, was the pain. “It was from overdoing at a young age: I was ambitious and obsessed. I worked so hard I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t get well.”

Gelsey realized “I had to give up dancing entirely or change my approach.” Feeling that her body lacked the suppleness for the lyric dancing her ABT repertory required, she spent hours reanalyzing her movements and disciplining herself to a painstaking daily regimen. It is based on a diet of health foods and hours of muscle-lengthening exercises, plus daily ^ swimming, sauna and massage. She of course devotes the ballerina’s normal two hours to class and more to rehearsal. “Perhaps my hobby in life is creating problems and then overcoming them,” she says. “But I know my body. What happened is that I got so caught up in the applause I forgot how I should dance. All my life I’ve been what others wanted—in dancing and in life. Now I’m doing it my way.”

An additional complication was Gelsey’s relationship with Baryshnikov. “I don’t like to criticize,” she explains. “He got me through a lot. I guess when you get to know someone, it’s like the fantasy of first being in love. It can’t last. You readjust and try to grow up.” She continues to dismiss rumors that their brief romance, which he took less seriously than she, left her devastated. “I care for Misha and he cares for me,” she says. “I intend to go on dancing with him. He has given me so much.

“He just could not understand how a dancer of reputation couldn’t do what was natural for him, and he lost patience. Things he found good enough, I was dissatisfied with, and he wondered what all the fuss was about. For a long time,” she adds slowly, “I blamed myself that things didn’t work out better. To this day I still stutter when I talk to him about it.”

Last month Gelsey returned to the stage at New York’s City Center. Critics and dancers jammed the theater. Visibly fearful the first moments, she danced a Giselle of heartbreaking vulnerability. Her mad scene may be the best on any stage.

Afterward, she was aglow with relief. “It’s been a long time, and I have more patience now, more realistic ideas of what I can do,” she says. Although she teasingly refers to her four different wardrobes—”emaciated, thin, skinny, pudgy”—she insists she is healthy at 92 pounds. “I feel as if the pieces are whole,” she says. “I’m not going to punish myself any longer.”

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