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The Gelsey Kirkland Academy: Teaching the Art of Storytelling in Dance

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Written with Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore

During her dancing career Gelsey Kirkland was known for her particular ability to get to the heart of a character in the great classic story ballets. In her second career as a teacher she has combined forces with her husband and co-director, Michael "Misha" Chernov, and mime teacher Pilar Garcia. The three, along with a dedicated group of teachers and support staff, serve complementary roles in training young dancers for the professional world. A significant part of their mission is to "encourage a renaissance of dramatic storytelling" in classical ballet which they believe is essential to the future of dance in America.

The answer to why they consider the story ballet so important is best told in their own words. Ever thoughtful and introspective, Kirkland said, "I think it's so we all remember what the story is. There's a story to why we're all here and where we're going and what's going to happen after we die. It's our consciousness - we're at war with our passion and we have to understand who the enemy is. Through what we're doing we hope to keep the effort going. This is why we start and end the ballet class with a reverence. (Reverence is a formal, balletic bow that ballet teachers use to begin and end the dance class as a sort of sacred balletic ritual) I think we're all trying to keep it alive because it has meaning to us and we believe it will offer something to other people."

Chernov agreed but with a slightly different emphasis on the why the stories are so important: "It's about meaning. We think that people need and want meaning. I think everyone is drawn to meaning. What's happened, I believe, is that art has become a thing on its own. 'Art for art's sake' implies that art can do anything it wants. But art has to be organic and it has to evolve out of the need to find meaning. When ancient people sat around the fire and then danced, it was about something meaningful. What's happened in contemporary society is that everything's become so abstracted that it is removed from meaning and consequently it's just entertainment. It fills a need to be distracted. Art has to be part of the emanation of a culture."

Classical ballet has its own particular, stylized manner of telling a story and it requires extensive training to master. It combines the subtleties of character and mime. As Pilar Garcia said, to underscore the importance to GKA of fostering complete dancers: "I think that the thing that Gelsey and Misha are building here is dancers that can act. In ballet, the acting is mime. It's not separate from acting because mime is the acting part of ballet."

Early in her tenure at American Ballet Theatre, Kirkland was cast as Giselle and found that she didn't have the skills she needed to tell the story. As she has always done, Kirkland reached out for help. The person she ended up working with was mime teacher Pilar Garcia. The outcome of their collaboration was at first in doubt as Kirkland tells it: "A friend of mine recommended Pilar's teacher, Richard Morse. He was out of town so Pilar was the next best thing. (laughs) It turned out we never separated from that time."

Garcia understood that working together was not necessarily going to happen: "The first time we got together this mutual friend of ours said, 'Gelsey's not sure you're the one and she might be embarrassed if you're not the coach for her.' And I said, 'Don't worry about that. I've been in so many classes and taken so many lessons that if I'm not the one for her, I'll know it in five minutes and if it doesn't work out I'll try to find someone else.' As it turned out, it worked out and we kind of speak the same language in terms of the honesty of the moment."

Working with someone who was already an established classical ballet dancer was a new experience for Garcia, she recalled: "I learned very quickly that there's a difference between teaching and coaching. When you have a prima ballerina staring at a performance three weeks away... Gelsey is very intelligent and she wanted to know how to go about this and how to go about that. With the performance pressing, what we did was to learn a lot by coaching the need of the moment. Having had seventeen years of ballet, I knew the form because I had danced myself. I knew what she was facing and I had a feel for the form which I think helped."

Kirkland recalls it as a painstaking process of endless repetition: "There was a lot of pressure so it wasn't the same as educating someone. Just like ballet training, it takes years of education to really learn mime and have it become a part of you. It was just a ballet at a time. If you don't know something you have to drill it over and over and over. I immediately respected how much repetition it took to master it. I remember I'd go into the studio and lose it in a minute. It has to be rehearsed endlessly. We took one step at a time, one phrase at a time, one act at a time, one ballet at a time."

Kirkland grew up in the School of American Ballet, one of the best in the world, but its mission was training dancers for the New York City Ballet. In the rush to embrace Neo-Classicism, important elements of tradition were being lost and this is part of Kirkland's purpose with her academy: "If you know how to incorporate mime into your technique then you can overcome a lot of limitations. You may not have a perfect instrument or a perfect shape but we want to see talented people who are intelligent and attached to the process of working and then we can make really great, memorable performers out of them."

It's essential from Chernov's point of view to challenge the dancers and not give into the temptation to just make them look good on stage: "What a lot of the schools do now is works specially choreographed for the occasion. It's actually a lot easier to do it that way because you adapt the choreography to the students. There's nothing wrong with doing that but if you do a whole show based on adapting choreography to the students you're not pulling them up to something. We're always caught in a dilemma, and it's an existential dilemma, because all of us don't know whether we're a school or a company. We're somewhere in between so we always overstep our ambitions. We want the students to learn the stuff. It would be much easier if we gave them an abstract ballet but then we would never train them and we would be just like any other school. We are trying to do things that are very difficult and perhaps beyond their ability."

Kirkland agrees that they have high expectations and feels that it is necessary: "Plunging these dancers into these ballets, the same as in my experience, is the only way they can learn to feel their lack of ability. Because when you look at good mimes, it looks totally natural. Everybody thinks they can do it. Then when you put the dancers in they discover, oh, this is really hard. If you don't give them the body of work (the classical story ballets) then they can't learn."

Mime as used in story ballets is quite a bit different from illusionary mime according to Garcia: "I learned that balletic mime is very different from French illusionary mime in that when you're coaching a dancer it's so important that you first of all start by taking their instincts. You can offer things but you need to watch what their instincts go for and just try to strengthen that through mimetic technique. I think the musical part of balletic mime is so different than working in French illusionary mime where you are the music. You set the pace and the rhythm, the dynamics, how you want to touch on the moment. You can explode in emotion and go into slow motion to draw the attention to that moment. When you have a musical line that you have to adhere to, as in ballet, the most interesting thing is when to converge with the music and when to go against it. The temptation is, with music like Sleeping Beauty which is a great score, to get seduced by the music. Most young dancers when they're starting out have to work so hard to be with the music and to fill it out. If you do mime like that in ballet, with no punctuation or thought, you're swimming in nothing."

What she means is that the movement of mime in dance has to be differentiated from pure dance in intentionality because it is where the story is told. The dancer must concentrate on the meaning behind the mime movement rather than the music that accompanies it. If the mime gets caught up in being with the music it won't tell the narrative as effectively. Kirkland added this on the topic: "The thing that I learned from working on mime is that each step has to have an idea prominently behind it. Otherwise the phrasing is affected because you don't know what it is that you're trying to fill. You have to have an idea present behind the movement. The more you explore acting and mime the more it has a really great effect on ballet. You'll never approach a pas de deux the same way again. You have all these other considerations that make it a lot more interesting. You have to find the weight of the character and what parts of the body are affected by it."

What GKA is all about, beyond just teaching dancers how to dance, is teaching dancers the elements of character and mime. They have something important to give to their students. For Pilar Garcia it is this: "It's always been about the work for me. The satisfaction of helping a young person understand what expression really is and how to get to it. That's what really excites us. When they get it in rehearsal, they'll hit a moment and they know it. You're there to reinforce it. The power to express. The power to engage the audience. The ability to tell a narrative in dance. To anchor the dance - it becomes more important when you know the what, when, where, who and why. It's not just the emotional truth you're going for, and Misha alluded to this before, it's the character. To know how to become a character; to use what you have and not feel that you're trying to be something you're not; to use what you are as a human being in this particular role."

Kirkland, always analyzing and continually trying to find deeper meanings tried to explain why she does what she does: "It's very fulfilling to share all the things that you've learned. I remember when I learned things when I was a dancer, I immediately wanted to tell everybody, 'You've got to go work with Pilar! You've got to go see this dancer!' Of course nobody wanted to go. It's the same when you teach. Some of them don't want to go where you want to take them. I think the most interesting and enjoyable challenge is that everybody's personality is different and you have to respect how people want to learn. Everyone learns differently. Some learn better through imagery, some by example, some through education and some are intellectuals. I enjoy learning how to bring them this information through the Russian system because I've gone through all these other training processes and being myself a very imperfect instrument, finding my way through the ballet world, how to take these kids there. It's sort of like being a translator. I translate what are the good things about the Russian system and what is it that you have to know before you can absorb that material. That's what I really love to do - get them ready. Teach them about the mechanics of their bodies. In Russia they choose the bodies to fit the system. That's a very big difference here. We're dealing with many different types of bodies and I'm a believer in proper alignment and not forcing. We explain the system so they have a fast track way to understand what they're doing. Many of them haven't ever been taught this material. You have to make it interesting for them. It's an art form that requires that you be very discerning about what you're doing."

Chernov was particularly poignant when he tried to explain why he does what he does: "All my life, I've liked to play. I was doing this when I was a kid. I would direct and work out shows with my cousins. That's basically what I like to do. I like to build things. I used to enjoy reading the paper but now I hate it. I can't stand the world and its pragmatic problems. I just enjoy living inside of this world. I think that when I enjoy it, the kids enjoy it too. Of course you can't always enjoy it because there are realistic pressures of the world and I understand that I have to be a grown up. I'm not a kid, but this is what I love to do and it's what I'm good at. It's like running a family."

This passion underlies all of their work at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy. At many dance schools around the nation, Spring performances are beginning and relatives are getting their first opportunity to see what their children have been learning all year. Of all the children that start dance lessons only a small handful ever make it into a professional dance company. It requires countless hours of rehearsals and lessons that stretch out over years. It takes about ten years to produce a professional classical ballet dancer. At the elite schools, students will be taking on advanced roles to gain stage experience that they will need later in life. Some will begin to shine this spring as future stars separate themselves from their peers. It's not just the talent that will separate them because talent alone is insufficient. It also requires incredibly hard work and dedication plus great teachers who care about helping you to be the best that you can be. For the ones who don't end up being in professional companies, their lives are forever enriched by the transformative power of taking part in the performing arts.

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The Gelsey Kirkland Academy will be performing Harlequinade and excerpts from Sleeping Beauty, May 17th and 18th at Pace University's Michael Schimmel Center. TICKETS LINK.