Dance: U.S. Ballet Soars

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

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She became totally absorbed in a craft as demanding and stubborn as she was. Regular schooling was a chore she impatiently endured; she eventually dropped out in the eleventh grade. At home, Jack's royalties were dwindling. Nancy took a job and found work for Gelsey as a child model. She detested it "because it was so upsetting to miss a class." A dance scholarship came to the rescue and put her in classes 12½ hours a week. Twice a day she and her classmate Meg Gordon donned rubber sweat pants and took turns stretching each other's legs, an ordeal that often left Gelsey weeping. Her muscles were taut and had to be tugged mercilessly if she was to achieve extension, the astonishing limb span demanded of great dancers.

The most promising students in the School of American Ballet were tapped to join the corps of Balanchine's New York City Ballet, and the hope of catching Mr. B's eye spurred every young dancer on. "You cared more than anything in the world how you were impressing him," says Gelsey. When she was 15, Gelsey danced in a school production of Bournonville's Flower Festival. Dancer Villella was among the many who were impressed: "Already she was capable of making her own comment on the choreography, which usually takes many years to do." She joined Balanchine's company.

Johnna was already there. Jack Kirkland's death two months after Gelsey's 16th birthday momentarily brought the sisters together but did not dampen a long-simmering rivalry between the two. Gelsey's determination to be a better dancer than anyone else definitely included Johnna. Soon the sisters did not speak. Balanchine apparently did not help matters. Johnna remembers him asking Gelsey, "Why can't you do an adagio like your sister? Go home with your sister and have her teach you how to do an adagio." Johnna was told to learn jumping from Gelsey. The result was predictable. Says Johnna: "We really, at one point in our lives, really hated each other." John Clifford recalls seeing both sisters watching from the wings and weeping as the other performed well.

Gelsey was to give Johnna plenty of opportunities to grieve. When she was 17, Balanchine devised a version of Firebird for Gelsey. The work took advantage of her speed and youth. "I didn't want a woman," Balanchine explained. "I wanted a bird, one of God's natural creatures." But Gelsey had created a story to prepare herself for her role. "I don't think Balanchine wanted me to do that," she says, correctly. Balanchine's bird was intended as just that, a pure figure of form and movement. The production was a rare Balanchine stumble. Critics blamed him, not his pupil.

A bit later, Mr. B set Gelsey the stringent task of dancing Theme and Variations. He made his earlier version even more intricate and Gelsey rose to the challenge. But the strain on her overtaxed system was considerable. She developed tendinitis and began thinking the unthinkable: "I love dancing more than anything in the world, but I cannot dance with this pain."

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