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The pure dancer in Gelsey could be seen last week when A.B.T. opened its New York season with a new production of Balanchine's Theme and Variations, a ballet as precise as Don Q is broad. David Howard, one of Gelsey's two current instructors, describes the challenge: "Theme requires diamond sharpness, tremendous speed, a glittering technique. The Balanchine style is small, sharp, quick footwork." Gelsey's performance was in the way of a reprise. When she first conquered the ballet's fiendish demands at 17, she gave notice that she could do anything. Nothing she does now suggests otherwise.
Observed from afar, the Kirkland magnetism looks as easy and inevitable as a natural force. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and look at that woman up there on that stage. This illusion, indeed, this bald-faced lie, is the tribute art pays to perspiration, not to mention a flinty intelligence that knows exactly what the body is up to every second of a performance. Says Gelsey: "As unnatural as dancing is, you have to find a natural way of doing the unnatural."
In the matter of physique, nature did not deal Gelsey an ideal hand, but she trumped every disadvantage. Her facial features seem to have been intended for a slightly larger head. So? What big blue eyes she has and what an alluring Gioconda half-smile, all the better to be seen clearly from the third balcony. And those long arms and legs: Should they not be attached to a bigger body? In motion, Gelsey's torso seems to lose what little substance it has. Mass is translated into a continuum of grace.
With her waiflike face and small person (she does quite graze 5 ft. 4 in.; she weighs around 93 lbs.), Gelsey is an enchanting soubrette, delightful as Swanilda in Coppélia or, more recently, as Clara in Baryshnikov's A.B.T. production of The Nutcracker. Gelsey enters in a swirl of other young people and first steps out of the crowd as a shy spectator of party festivities. At bedtime her tiny frame is swallowed up in a pink nightdress. Later, amid the wondrous dream parade of snowflakes and exotic entertainers, the girl-woman Clara stands out as the most ethereal and ephemeral creature of all.
Gelsey has been dancing various roles in The Nutcracker for nearly 17 years, but her performance in the Baryshnikov version had special significance. It was her first triumph after a period of physical and emotional travail. While rehearsing the part, immersed in the light-heartedness of make-believe girlhood, Gelsey began doing something that her grim lockstep toward perfection had never allowed before: enjoying herself.
Why did this happen? Gelsey explains: "I guess it was because—forgive me, Mother—I would like to have remembered my childhood like that, but it wasn't anything like my childhood. It was such fun to go through a childhood like the one in The Nutcracker. Christmas was a big deal for us, but I never saw things this way. I never had the kind of dreams that Clara does. I was so busy working at making my dreams come true that they were never really dreams. They were aspirations."