Friday Favorites: “Dancing on my Grave” by Gelsey Kirkland

Today’s Friday Favorite is “Dancing on my Grave,” a memoir by Gelsey Kirkland, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas who joined the New York City Ballet at 15. She was also something of a notorious (but reformed) bad girl figure in the ballet world. If you know anything about her it’s probably that she 1) danced with Baryshnikov on TV in “The Nutcracker” (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube) and 2) did a lot of coke on top of starving herself.

If you know anything more, it’s probably that she was a unique, brilliant, expressive dancer. I’m painfully crushed that we didn’t have today’s cameras in the 60s-80s, because I wish I could see her in HD, but even looking at the blurry videos that do exist, you can get an idea of her brilliance. She cultivated an airy, innocent yet knowing, childlike and delicate quality to her movement. And she expressed with every cell in her body.

Kirkland is probably my favorite dancer of all time. Her movement aesthetics are the same as mine, and I really connect with how she discusses ballet. I have often said that what I love about ballet is the shaping of space with your body. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Kirkland expressed it far better:

Many dancers think of performance as the audience… and themselves, that is, two-dimensional. They need to build a three-dimensional world and draw the audience into it. When you radiate épaulement, let’s say in croisé, you are opening up a whole arc of light with your body. You have to open this circle constantly, so that when you move through space you create a state of wonder and the audience discovers this with you.

But the absence of light is darkness. The book is an extremely unvarnished retrospective, penned while she was—as the end of the book describes—getting off coke and Valium. In addition to the drug abuse, she dealt with eating disorders. It really does fall into the “tortured genius” category which really makes me wonder how much better she might have been if she hadn’t hated herself for most of her life. But she also claims, and I see no reason to disbelieve her, that all that hatred meant she focused and obsessed on making her dance better because it was the one area of life where she could control. Obsession leads to practice, and practice approaches perfection. So perhaps if she had been born into a healthier family, Kirkland’s career would have ended young when she decided that Balanchine was an asshole and walked out of the School of American Ballet. No doubt it would have been healthier for her. The paying public admires achievements, but doesn’t like to think about the cost, unless it’s also shown as a performance—a grotesque one, especially.

That aside. The book is a fascinating look for me, as a person who enjoys dancing ballet, into the unbelievable amount of work Kirkland put into her dancing. We’re talking all-night practices. She was a complete perfectionist. The book doesn’t really linger on her studio time, but there are others who were there with a camera. Kurt Froman got his hands on some footage of Kirkland (among other things) practicing the famous Kitri jump for 50 minutes, over and over.

She paid for it financially, too. She found her own coaches, not just in ballet but in kinesiology and mime and other types of dance. She was learning nonstop for her entire career … although I suppose the cocaine didn’t help.

On that note, I can easily see why cocaine was so attractive to her. My understanding (never having tried it) is that coke, aside from the euphoria, makes you feel really confident in yourself. If I hated myself as much as Kirkland describes hating herself, I too would be instantly hooked on being free of that feeling. Speaking as one who drinks alcohol to occasionally stop the noise of a mind that sometimes just won’t shut up, I understand self-medication completely, without necessarily promoting the act. I should also mention that (as described both in and out of this book) plenty of other dancers at the time were doing various drugs for various reasons. The dancer whom Kirkland said introduced her to cocaine died a year after her book came out, probably of an overdose.

For those of you worried about a sad ending, I have good news. Kirkland did get away from drugs and returned to the stage. She discovered teaching while at the Royal Ballet, and today helms the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. She gives beautiful, frank interviews and is all about coaching the next generation of dancers. She’s an artist still, and she’s even happy. May we all come to that point, but hopefully with far less trouble.

P.S. Kirkland wrote a second memoir, The Shape of Love, which is also on my to-read list.

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