This is an excerpt from my memoir Standing Room, which is about my experiences as a student at both American Ballet Theatre School and Stuyvesant High School in the 1970’s.
Late in the spring we heard wonderful news. Gelsey Kirkland was going to doing her first Swan Lake. There was a long article in the New York Times about her preparation for the debut, with a wonderful photo of Gelsey in a rehearsal tutu. I just had to go.
Greta and Susan
were with me the first time I saw Gelsey perform. She did a pas
de deux with Ivan Nagy as part of a repertory evening. I’d read so much about her but I had not yet
seen her dance at the studio. I would
see her in the hallway sometimes in pale blue velour sweats with her brown hair
escaping from a ponytail into her enormous blue eyes. She didn’t seem to meet anyone’s eye and
seemed lost in her own routine and internal dialogue. She had a reputation for being overly emotional,
subject to moods, but she had a perfect technique and she was rumored to be a
great match for Baryshnikov, both on and off stage if the gossip was to be
She was also the
ultimate icon for all the skinny dance students. Gelsey was amazingly slim and childlike,
appearing almost too frail to maintain her skeleton let alone perform as she
did. She was in her early twenties and
had come to ABT from City Ballet, where she had been one of Balanchine’s
she danced with Nagy I was taken as much by her soulful eyes, which were able
to communicate way up to the back of the house, as by her amazing
technique. Her legs looked endless and
the most supple I’d ever seen. She
seemed to have no muscle mass in her thighs, her legs were just rubber bands
ending in a tutu. She had the familiar
Balanchine overbite, which on her made her appear vulnerable and poignant from
hundreds of feet away. She was just
began to study Gelsey. I scanned the
rehearsal and performance schedules for her name. I learned to pick out her slight frame in the
group of company dancers in the big studio.
She often looked tired and drawn in rehearsal and she always wore an odd
combination of over-sized clothing, some of which just looked like menswear
pajamas she had picked up accidently off the floor. It was like she was hiding out, not wanting
to reveal herself until it was time. The
dance students imparted more information in bated breath. Stories of Gelsey’s sacrifice to obtain and
maintain her thin frame, her unbelievable extension, her depth of
character. She was otherworldly, she
didn’t belong with the rest of us.
in the spring I saw Gelsey and Baryshnikov do the Don Quixote pas de deux. This is a standard of the repertory and is
something that every dancer who is the best dancer in their small town will show
up in New York ready to perform. It is a
crowd pleaser complete with a Spanish fan as a prop, heart-stopping spins by
the danseur, and the famous fouette
turns by the woman, in which she performs 32 consecutive whipping turns and
ideally does not travel one inch from the spot on the stage where she
started. It’s kitschy and cannot help
bringing a smile to the face of anyone watching. I’d seen this in rehearsal so many times that
I knew all the steps and but for my indifferent technique could have certainly
performed the first female variation.
Gelsey and Baryshnikov it was like watching a gold medal performance in the
Olympics. With her hair in a central
parted low bun and a stylized curl on one cheek, Gelsey looked engaged and
almost ferocious with charm. Baryshnikov
looked boyish with puppy-dog energy. I
was seeing the transformation to being on stage, being ripe for the
performance, as opposed to the work of the studio. They each took every turn, every step to the
ultimate, sneaking an extra turn, an overly long balance at every
opportunity. It was rebellious and a
slap in the face to every indifferent dancer who had been required to perform
these parts. The audience was roaring by
the end. I was ready to declare my
commitment. Gelsey was my favorite
her Swan Lake debut was announced, I
checked the schedule. I wanted to
cry. It was going to be Friday evening
performance in early June. Friday — a
weekday. No way to go standing room
during the week, since the box office opened at ten in the morning. I had all sorts of exams and projects to
finish in June, including the dreaded Regents exam in chemistry. Regular tickets were already sold out as word
got out in the ballet community. Hard to
know what to do.
began to scan the studio when I arrived for class, to try to find Gelsey
rehearsing. She was never there. After a few days I realized she must be using
one of the private outside teachers she famously frequented. I was very disappointed. But even though I didn’t see her, based on
what I read in the article in the Times, I sensed her fragility and nervousness
about the role. It was vitally important
for me to be at the performance, to lend her my support and strength across the
rows of seats. I had vigor and energy
for both of us.
tried to get information on when the Regents exams were scheduled for and when
I needed to sit for my regular Stuyvesant tests. Nothing was scheduled for that Friday. I hated chemistry and for the first time in
my academic career I was afraid I would fail a class. Our teacher, Mr. Kramer, had been our
homeroom teacher for a few semesters and we all liked him a lot. He looked like George Carlin and probably
spent his evenings smoking pot. I was
amazed to find out what a terrible teacher he was when I was put in his
class. He taught a theoretical, hazy
version of chemistry and said that it was up to all of us to learn the stuff we
needed to pass the state-required Regents’ exam at the end of the year. He scoffed when we protested. And there was no option of getting out of it
– chemistry was strictly required at Stuyvesant and everyone knew that you
needed a full four years of science to be considered by any meaningful college. With just a month to the Regent’s exam, I
couldn’t see a way to getting a decent grade in the class. I’d also just gotten my SAT scores. 620 verbal, 710 math. Totally unacceptable. The verbal needed to come up 100 points and
the math needed to edge up a bit too.
I pushed all of that from my mind. I
asked Greta and Susan if they thought their parents would let them skip school
that Friday morning to get standing room tickets. Their parents were fairly strict so I was
doing this as a test. They looked at
each other, weighing what the reaction of the other one would be.
ask,” Susan said, bravely.
next day Susan said her parents had said it would be okay and Greta piped up
that she had also checked with her mother.
Now it was up to me.
my surprise my mother agreed right away.
She had been the one to point out the article in the Times to me and she was almost as
fascinated with Gelsey as I was. She had
come with me to see her at a matinee in early May.
think it’s OK. I’ll give you an excuse
note.” Her tone was conspiratorial. It was the first time in all of my school
years that my mother had agreed to bend a rule.
Thursday night before the performance my mother wrote a note to Mr. Kramer in
her clear, calming script that explained that I needed to miss the first few
periods of school to attend to a family matter.
I folded the sheet in my notebook and set my alarm to get up even
earlier than usual.
decided we needed to get to the Met before eight in the morning to have any
chance to get tickets. We met for the
six thirty boat and for a treat ate donuts and milk from the Italian bakery in
the terminal. We were giggly and jumpy
from fatigue. When we got to Lincoln
Center the line already snaked around the corner and had begun to turn around
on itself at the back corner of the theater.
It didn’t look good for us. Susan
and I went to grab a spot at the end of the line, while Greta went to count how
many people were ahead of us. For this
performance tickets were only going to be sold one to a person so the head
count should give us an idea. When Greta
got to us she was grinning.
should be OK. We’ll probably be in the
balcony, but we’ll be there.”
the line started to move at precisely ten o’clock it moved even more quickly
than usual and we were all back at school with our tickets carefully guarded in
our wallets by eleven o’clock.
met them at the Bagel Nosh after my afternoon class and we ate shrimp salad on
egg bagels and kept looking at our watches.
When it was time to walk across the broad white plaza to the theater,
there was a pink glow of excitement in the air.
I shivered in anticipation. The
crowd, which gently jostled to get into the theater, gave off a hum of laughter
and high pitched tones. This was going
to be wonderful.
seat in the opera house was occupied ten minutes before eight and every
standing room space was taken. We nodded
at the couple who had been in front of us in the morning, who were standing
right next to Susan. I waited
impatiently through the first act, which is mostly taken up with peasant dances
and back story involving the prince and why he hasn’t yet married. All I wanted to see was Gelsey.
the music for the long pas de deux in
the second act started, I felt the hairs on my arm stand up. The audience was hushed as the harp and viola
started their simple interplay and Gelsey and Nagy began to dance. She was so beautiful. Her profile made her a perfect swan and as
they danced I truly felt I was watching a couple making love. I’d read over and over again how the pas de deux form was a shorthand for the
characters expressing their love, but it had always seemed symbolic and
theoretical to me, on a very high plain.
But that night it was tangible and intoxicating. As the music picked up tempo I began to feel
nervous, as if there was a slight chance Gelsey wasn’t going to have a perfect
debut. I was mentally pushing her on,
waiting for each difficult turn or extension, hoping, hoping, watching her
perfectly execute it, and then wishing I could have it back, to have it not yet
be danced, to still be able to look forward to it. I felt pulses of chills, unable to believe I
was experiencing something so special.
When the final bars came, with a series of slow, controlled pirouettes
on pointe supported by Nagy’s firm arm, I felt my heart pounding, so proud of
Gelsey, so happy for her. When she
finished, the theater erupted not just with applause, but with loud shouts and
thundering feet, things I’d never heard there before. Susan, Greta and I alternatively clutched
each other’s arms and clapped as loudly as we could, shouting with everyone
else. Even without speaking, we knew we
had experienced something life-changing.