Dance: U.S. Ballet Soars

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

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As she had always done before, Gelsey took steps. This time, though, her single-mindedness promised a confrontation with the demiurge of 20th century dance. Balanchine's classes are known for their remorseless speed. Gelsey not only sought the help of outside teachers, she dropped Balanchine's class entirely. What she wanted to learn from others was an approach that was both less punishing and more effective.

"It created a lot of friction within the company," Gelsey recalls. "I had to do it on my own without anybody's approval and with everybody's disapproval." Far from punishing her, Balanchine continued to give Gelsey the run of City Ballet's unparalleled repertory. She danced lead roles in his Symphony in C, "Rubies" in Jewels, Harlequinade and Concerto Barocco and in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, Goldberg Variations and Scherzo Fantastique. She became a stellar member of one of the world's great companies.

But not a star. The City Ballet means Balanchine; company dancers, however superb, are the embodiments of his imagination. Says one Balanchine-trained performer: "It's like a painter who needs red, blue and yellow. Gelsey was red. She was the material for his choreography." After six years under Balanchine, Gelsey felt that she could do more. Says she: "I knew that I could not extend myself in the New York City Ballet." The question was, how to make the break.

Then came Baryshnikov. Gelsey had met him briefly on a 1972 tour with the City Ballet in Russia, and he had seen her perform there. During the summer of 1974, she went to Toronto to see Baryshnikov dance. At a supper afterward they hit it off. Sizing her up, the 5 ft. 6½ in. Baryshnikov remarked, "Hhmm, good partner, right size." A few days later Gelsey was back in New York, working at the barre, when she got a phone call from a member of Baryshnikov's entourage. Misha had just decided not to return to the Soviet Union and wanted Gelsey to dance with him. Was she interested? "Well, I just flipped out," says Gelsey. "I just flipped. I remember just screaming at the top of my voice: 'What do you mean, would I dance with him? Of course, I will.' "

Gelsey's own defection from Balanchine soon followed. She joined Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theater, a company that showcases luminous dancers rather than a single choreographic vision. Purists were appalled and left with a tantalizing question: Would Balanchine have made a masterpiece for Gelsey had she stayed? But Baryshnikov's offer was a plum that few ballerinas could have resisted. Keeping up with him was hard enough. And the glare of publicity that followed his grand jeté to the West offered his partner the brightest, whitest arena in which to succeed or fail.

Gelsey threw herself at the challenge with typical fervor. Joining A.B.T. meant rapidly mastering the classical repertory of story ballets that Balanchine's company did not perform. It meant learning to act as well as dance, an opportunity that she both craved and feared: "I never really felt capable of doing the roles that people seemed to think I could do." Being out from under Balanchine's shadow also meant that she had no place to hide.

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