Dance: U.S. Ballet Soars

And in model roles, the role model is high-flying Gelsey Kirkland

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Nobody stood over little Gelsey with a knife and forced her to have aspirations. All accounts agree, including hers: she did it to herself. John Clifford, director of the Los Angeles Ballet company, knew the young Gelsey and was not entirely charmed. "Gelsey was born mad at the world," he says. "She was born ready to kill." Former Dancer Meg Gordon, one of Gelsey's few close friends, remembers the same thing in softer focus: "Even when we were little, her mother used to joke about it, saying, 'You must have come out of your mother's womb marching.' "

Gelsey marched on Dec. 29, 1952, in a Bethlehem, Pa., hospital. Her father Jack was a playwright who had scored handsomely as adapter of Tobacco Road for Broadway; her mother Nancy, a onetime actress, had retired from the stage to become Jack's fifth wife. A sister, Johnna, was nearly four when Gelsey was born; she has a brother, Marshall, 16 months younger.

Home was a rambling place in Bucks County, Pa., shared by three of Jack's children from earlier marriages and four grandchildren. Carloads of theater friends and Kirkland's fellow writers arrived regularly from New York for extended house parties. Amid all the drinking and countryside romping, Gelsey stood out as the poker-faced toddler. "Her seriousness was always a source of kidding," says Brother-in-Law Don Bevan. "But she would never encourage it. She would never give the adults satisfaction. You could never get her to sit on your lap and be cuddly."

When she was three, the Kirklands moved to an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. There, Jack decided that both girls should be prepared for a life in the theater. He took a special interest in Johnna, whose easygoing gregariousness matched his own. "I was my father's child," says Johnna, "and Gelsey was my mother's child." The younger daughter's obsessiveness taxed a mother's patience. First it was ice skating. Tummy sticking out and a frown on her large face, Gelsey learned to whirl around the Wollman rink in Central Park. "She had no fun doing it," recalls Nancy, the long-suffering spectator.

Next came horseback riding, at summer camp in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Johnna had begun taking dance lessons at the prestigious School of American Ballet. An idle observer at first, Gelsey was soon trying steps in front of a mirror. Weiss remembers her as "the little sister who always hung around and got in the way." Before too long, Gelsey decided that Johnna's way belonged to her.

She recalls her tryout for the School of American Ballet with amusement she did not feel at the time: "I believe that I had a black leotard on, red tights and saddle shoes. I had a huge stomach, teeny little legs and this tremendous head. The teacher came up to me and lifted my leg to see how limber it was. I was desperately holding on to the barre, and the foot I was standing on went right out from under me. I was so tight, so really unsuited for dancing." Admitted to the school despite her pratfall, she renounced skates and horses forever.

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