(by Dane Youssef)
Innocent-looking, girlish and pretty, this diminutive and emotional legendary ballerina has had more drama in her real life than there ever was onstage. While she was called by Mikhail Baryshnikov himself "the best of her generation," she was probably more famous for her raging cocaine addiction and off-stage behavior.Daughter of playwright Jack Kirkland, she grew up with a destiny for the theatre. Her father put her and her sister, Johnna into ballet classes. Gelsey was slow to learn, her sister's body was more equipped--feet, body shape, limbs and all. But Gelsey wasn't about to be stopped. She put everything she had and more into the dance. Soon, Gelsey and Johnna were admitted into the famed School of American Ballet.
She became a personal favorite of George Balanchine, who choreographed the piece "Firebird" for her. She idolized him and made him out to be a kind of father figure. But she was crushed when he belittled her ballet idols, Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. After Mikhail "Misha" Baryshnikov signed up to join the legendary American Ballet Theater, he asked Gelsey to be his partner. She agreed enthusiastically and resigned from NYCB to join him at ABT.
They danced many roles together: "Giselle," "Sleeping Beauty," "Romeo and Juliet." And Baryshnikov's own choreographed interpretation of "The Nutcracker" with himself in the title role. Gelsey at first refused, and Marianna Tcherkassky ended up dancing the role of Clara in the Washington D.C. premiere of the production, but she finally did the role afterwards, and danced it in the TV version. Believed to be their finest work together, she and Baryshnikov both danced beautifully and superhumanly, and Gelsey was surely at least as good as her much-more famous partner.
But soon it all came to an end and Misha wound up leaving ABT for the less-glamorous NYCB to learn at the footsteps of Balanchine himself. Misha's biggest dream was to dance Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." After a long wait, he finally got his wish. He danced with NYCB until Balanchine's inevitable death.But Gelsey was too busy with problems of her own back at ABT. Her new partner, Patrick Bissell, a much younger dancer had introduced the lady to cocaine. They had many soap-opera-style problems. Patrick and Gelsey had come together because of their mutual attraction to drugs. Gelsey was destroying her body and Patrick was destroying his body, his talent and even came whiskers away from committing suicide by overdose on several occasions. The two had a romantic relationship (which consisted pretty much of them dancing, doing drugs and sex). They were both fired---and then rehired by ABT for their behavior.
Misha eventually returned to the famed ABT. He took on a dual responsibility as principal star dancer and artistic director, taking the place of Lucia Chase.Gelsey eventually quit ABT and with husband, critic and former cocaine user Greg Lawrence, they packed off and headed for England for Gelsey to dance with the famed Royal Ballet.Gelsey was signed up to dance with principal and star Anthony Dowell. The company asked Gelsey which ballets would she like to dance. Gelsey requested "Romeo and Juliet" and "Giselle." They both, of course, turned out magnificent performances and got the kind of curtain calls every dancer dreams about.After getting a hairline fracture, Gelsey had to sit a few out. But after healing, Gelsey leapt at the opportunity to dance "Sleeping Beauty." Asked who she would choose as a partner, she selected Stephen Jefferies.
Despite numerous dance injures, a severe drug addiction and all the damage it was doing to her body, Gelsey kept going. Many dancers who had done the same wound up unable to keep dancing and having to retire, or in the hospital, or dead. What happened to her was nothing short of miraculous and a result of just plain determination and heart.She even taught a class while she was in London for future aspiring dancers and tutored a young aspiring Spanish dancer with her very first performance of "Giselle."Eventually Gelsey returned to America and ABT. She wrote her autobiographies "Dancing On My Grave" about her introduction to the life of dance, drugs and obsession, and "The Shape Of Love" about her recovery and life-after in London.
By the time she had returned, Misha had retired. He still dances with his White Oak Dance Project.
Kirkland and her husband Greg collaborated on one more book together, "The Little Ballerina and Her Dancing Horse" in 1993.
(by Dane Youssef)