What a year for ballet! And probably its finest hour was the springtime triumph of 22-year-old Gelsey Kirkland in the American Ballet Theatre production of Giselle. Partnered by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey danced an emotionally mature portrayal of Giselle—the supreme test of any romantic ballerina. A tumultuous, standing-ovation success, it also marked the emergence of America’s newest prima ballerina.
Kirkland’s fairy tale debut crowned a year of triumphs for the 94-pound sprite whose onstage air of fragility disguises ferocious speed, strength and split-second timing—plus a tearful temperament on occasion. Hailed as a prodigy at 15, Kirkland quit high school to join George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet—and was dancing solo roles inside a year. Restless within the confines of the Balanchine repertoire, the young dancer longed to perform the 19th century full-length classics. In July 1974, her liberating prince appeared. Baryshnikov, a legend from his Kirov days, telephoned her from Canada within days of his defection and offered a partnership. Gelsey unhesitatingly responded “Yes” and defected to Baryshnikov’s future home, American Ballet Theatre.
Curiously, the touchstone role of Giselle “at first seemed impossible,” Kirkland recalls in a small, reflective voice. “It was the last thing I felt ready for. But Misha gives me such confidence.” It wasn’t the movements but the interpretation Gelsey found difficult: “Slowly, in rehearsals, I began to respond to emotions, to experiences every vulnerable young girl has—that I hadn’t known were there. And the excitement of dancing with Misha was overwhelming.” Equally so was the opportunity to dance with Rudolf Nureyev last month as an ethereal Raymonda. “I heard talk of Rudi’s temperament but I never saw it,” she insists. “He was fantastically helpful. It’s just that he knows exactly what he wants.”
And is it worth it—the six hours of daily practice, a strict diet, the restricted social life? (Rumors of a romance with Baryshnikov have disappeared.) “Oh, yes!” exclaims Gelsey. “With Misha and Rudi I understand for the first time how dancing can express the spirit. I used to feel I was giving up a great deal for ballet; now it is not giving up anymore.”