Dance: U.S. Ballet Soars

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

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Onstage, Misha and Gelsey were magic from the start. A trial-run pas de deux from Don Quixote dazzled audiences in Winnipeg and later in Washington. Offstage, a love affair flared up between them, along with much professional bickering. Against a common background of rigorous classical training, Baryshnikov relied on instinct, Gelsey on analysis. Rehearsals became long and exasperating. They argued about the meaning of different positions. He: "It's arabesque, it's position." She: "No, it can be different in every ballet." There was also some competitive brain-picking. Gelsey sought the secrets of the Kirov's impeccable style; Misha, whose idol is Balanchine, wanted tips on the master's techniques.

Despite all the tensions, Gelsey danced a succession of new roles in La Sylphide, La Fille Mal Gardée, Les Sylphides. Her first Giselle in May 1975 was a major triumph. Gelsey's peasant girl seemed halfway toward spirithood even before she falls in love with and is betrayed by Baryshnikov's charming, careless nobleman. Pure spirit in the second act, she had gossamer lightness, nearly unbearable youthful poignance. The part confirmed her arrival as a romantic ballerina.

Amid all the praise, Gelsey was becoming increasingly miserable and insecure. Her affair with Misha fizzled out when he moved on to others. Says a friend: "It was all a romantic little dream, but it did not turn out that way. It was hard on her, but not as hard as the problem of dancing with someone who gets so much acclaim."

Gelsey was losing sight of her goal. "I realized that the very thing that gave me my life's inspiration was also the thing that was most difficult for me to do. Eventually, dancing was the thing that I loved and the thing that I resented." Never easy to work with, she now became impossible. She was late to rehearsals and then threw tantrums if other dancers tried to break before she had drilled herself to exhaustion.

On a West Coast tour with A.B.T. in early 1976, Gelsey nearly guttered out. With her weight dipping into the 80s, she could not sustain a performance. The producers of the film The Turning Point had wanted her to play a young ballerina. The first screen test had gone well, but Gelsey's deterioration came swiftly. Says the film's executive producer, Nora Kaye: "She was skull-like. It was impossible to use her." Gelsey's role, and an Oscar nomination, eventually went to A.B.T. Soloist Leslie Browne.

For the first time in months, Gelsey did something sensible. She returned to New York, where therapists provided massages and muscle stretches; physicians worked on a severe potassium deficiency. She studied again with David Howard and with Dance Teacher Stanley Williams, who had helped her through her previous ordeal under Balanchine.

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