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Gelsey has been drawing superlatives from balletomanes ever since she was a tiny dancer. No one who saw her nearly nine years ago in Jerome Robbins' piano ballet Dances at a Gathering doubted the arrival of a technical virtuoso. Gelsey sped through every challenge of the choreography, the visual equivalent of the rippling Chopin score. Though some in those days found her work rather cold, reservations never centered on her talent. The question was not whether she could make it to the top but whether she would self-destruct first. For her fame within dance's inner circle rests not just on her skill but on her ability to take a hard road and make it much, much harder. "I was a compulsive worker," she says, "even at eight."
The kid was also a tartar and grew up in kind, gobbling up ballet lessons, putting her tiny foot down whenever anyone dared to nudge her from her chosen path. Her purpose was clear. Says Dancer Robert Weiss, an old friend: "She wanted to have the extension of the greatest dancer, the jump of the best jumper, the turns of the best turner, the dramatic possibilities of the best dramatic ballerina and the comic possibilities of a comedienne. She wanted to be perfect."
How close she has come was visible last month at her Kennedy Center debut in Baryshnikov's version of Don Quixote. Very close. As Kitri, the spitfire Spanish girl who defies her innkeeper father and marries Basil, the barber of her choice, Gelsey has the kind of high-stepping, scenery-chewing part that can hurl an artist into stardom. Don Q offers some of the great bravura set pieces in the classical repertory, and Baryshnikov has seen to it that the routines spill into each other and positively spatter on the stage, threatening to engulf the aisles and even (somebody call the cops!) the streets outside.
Kirkland mugs like a trouper, perfectly attuned to the broad style of "classical vaudeville" that Baryshnikov chose for his tribute to this sturdy war horse of Russian ballet. When she is in the presence of Gamache, the unwanted suitor pressed upon her by her father, her eyes roll in exaggerated disdain. She transforms her snapping fan into an épée to prod this fopling across the stage and out of her sight. Her face flares in coquettish outrage at brash Basil's proffered kisses; she singes and melts at the same time. When she is onstage with the demented man of La Mancha, the tart señorita turns spindrift. She not only sees his visions but sees around them. Her poignant movements tell everyone watching what she knows: she is the earthly incarnation of the Don's beloved Dulcinea and how sad that life and visions cannot meet. Gelsey is, in short, one of the most electric actresses now working on any stage.