First position first. Place heels together and splay the feet until they point in opposite directions. Fine, but keep those legs touching, no bowing at the knees! In passing, note the ripples of protest that exfoliate up from the ankles through knees to outer thighs, the pebbly grind of hip sockets trying to accommodate swiveling joints. Good. Tendons, sinews, muscles and bones should now unite in sending an urgent message to the brain. Ouch! Wait a nanosecond for the translation. Here it comes: "Cut it out, will you? People were not built to stand this way. " Disregard this perfectly valid information. Now, dance.
Countless thousands of little girl ducklings each year paddle into this wrenching regimen, known politely as ballet class. Many are shoved by doting mommies and daddies with an atavistic sense of how young ladies are supposed to move. A single-minded few are driven by the demonic notion that they could, some day, be swans. Most are mistaken. Once in a great while though, the real thing comes along, and word rapidly spreads through one of the world's oldest permanent floating meritocracies. Leningrad hears it, and so do Stuttgart, Covent Garden and New York: a star is born who might, just might, be capable of being made. So recognized, this singular creature is then cosseted and punished, cradled from outside interruptions and given every imaginable opportunity to fall smack on her overextended haunches. Meanwhile, the cognoscenti settle back for a long wait. A verdict should be in in about ten years.
For Gelsey Kirkland, 25, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, that trial has ended successfully. An obvious prospect at eight and a gleam in the eye of George Balanchine at 15, Gelsey (pronounced with a hard g, as in great) has emerged from ballet's long chrysalis stage as the most exciting young ballerina in the Western world.
She is now moving into the class of the finest ballerinas: New York City Ballet's Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride, A.B.T.'s Natalia Makarova and Cynthia Gregory; and Gelsey is six years younger than the youngest of these. Her stage presence fuses contraries—strength and limpidity, control and abandon, energy and ease. "It's difficult to talk about Gelsey," says Choreographer Antony Tudor, "because she is so right." Many try nonetheless. Rudolf Nureyev commends her: "She has that beautiful fluidity in her movements and an incredible strength for such a small girl." Mikhail Baryshnikov notes that "she advances from performance to performance. Her taste and artistic outlook are constantly developing, and none of us can predict how far she will go." Dancer Edward Villella singles out the essence of a performance: "Those steel-like legs that are doing the most fantastic technical feats, while the upper body is soft and lovely as though nothing was going on underneath."