The CBS News program 60 Minutes interviewed Gelsey Kirkland in 1986; here is the video. This was around the time of the publication of her book, Dancing on My Grave. I stumbled on the video on YouTube this morning and was shocked that I don’t remember seeing it when it originally aired.
I hadn’t known she’d starved herself intentionally to avoid playing the lead in the movie The Turning Point. The lead went to Leslie Browne, who had joined ABT as a soloist just a year earlier. There was a lot of griping that Browne was the godchild of some higher-up in ABT and that’s why she got the role. She had also been hired as a soloist even though she was not yet out of her teens — another thing that surely raised some hackles among fellow dancers. Certainly the quality of Browne’s dancing at that time was good enough, but not overwhelming, even if later she became one of the most cherished ABT primas. Even then she was continually savaged by the great but harsh dance critic Arlene Croce. I don’t know if that ever stopped, or if Croce just retired.
Point is that the role went from belonging to an awesome prima ballerina — who had been an actual teen prodigy — to being played by a nervous young soloist, and no doubt The Turning Point suffered for it. I did see the movie and remember thinking it was silly. Then again, Browne was nominated for an Academy Award, and I believe for her entire career she was touted more as a dramatic dancer than a technician (that was the part Croce apparently didn’t appreciate).
Anyway, at the time it was widely accepted that Kirkland had become ill and anorexic because of her OCD behavior…and, of course, the drugs. I would never have guessed she starved herself intentionally just for the purpose of avoiding a movie role. I read the book and found that she placed blame on everyone and everything but herself; of course, although there is a lot of blame to go around in her story, not all of it belongs to other people. In the end the book was just sad and hard to read. I eventually donated it to a library.
After all her trials at NYCB and ABT, there was a nice ending: Kirkland had a happy landing at the Royal Ballet (as did Cynthia Harvey). I’m guessing this is because of the influence of Anthony Dowell, who had similarly — but for different reasons — been frozen out at ABT.
Kirkland is now the head of her own prestigious ballet academy. She has continued her search for more humane ballet training; it’s something I’d love to interview her about. Certainly the claim of “that other person” that Russian training has all the answers is demonstrably false, and it’s long been known that the Balanchine technique (such as it is), is even harder on the body than the Russian (or any other kind of ) ballet training.
Anyway, do watch…and let me know if some of Kirkland’s behavior reminds you of someone we are dealing with now. Let it serve as a lesson to this person if she reads this blog, which I think she sometimes does.