"What do I want out of life? Two packs of cigarettes a day and coffee," said Gelsey Kirkland last week at her Manhattan apartment.
Kirkland, the eccentric superstar dancer considered by many to be America's greatest native-born ballerina, has a reputation for being temperamental, intelligent and stubborn.
Last season, she declined to sign a contract with ABT and sat the season out while doing some guest engagements. Prior to the company's December engagement at the Kennedy Center this season, she resigned. She was talked out of it and rejoined the troupe, then failed to attend rehearsals and was fired.
Yesterday, ABT announced she had again rejoined the troupe.
But for Kirkland, the renewed professional acquaintance with Mickhail Baryshnikov, the company's artistic director, is no goal achieved. When she speaks of her once and future boss, it is frequently in a critical manner.
What she wants to do, she said, is "work with someone and put tradition aside and find something new within something old -- even if it's just one small step" in a warhorse 19th-century ballet.
Could Baryshnikov be that someone?
"No," Kirkland said.
"Baryshnikov had a natural resistance to my ideas," she said, speaking of the early days with ABT, when she was brought in as his partner. "I would think anyone coming from Russia, brought up with these ballets, would be devastated by someone wanting to change something.
"I used to put poison in his breakfast cereal," she joked.
Kirkland said that in the mid-'70s, she overcame this resistance because "I dragged him into the studio. I just put my life on the line and we had a lot of fights" in trying to resolve artistic differences.
She lit another cigarette. Slender and small-boned, with full pouty lips, Kirkland has a face that can turn from baby-innocent to world-weary in a blink. Sitting on a sofa in her sparsely furnished West End Avenue flat, she spoke animatedly, hands flying, expression changing from ecstatic smile to mock-fierce glare. She wore a "fake-fur yarn coat," pants and boots, chain-smoked and drank coffee throughout one of the few interviews she has granted in recent years. (Contacted yesterday after the announcement that she was rejoining ABT, she said through her manager that she would stand by her comments.)
Her difficulties with Baryshnikov, she said, were only part of the problem at ABT: the other major part was Lucia Chase, the company's co-founder and former artistic director.
"Lucia and I never really had what I would call a stable relationship. It was absolutely impossible. Lucia above all respected Misha [Baryshnikov]. I had a great deal of difficulty at times working with him and anything I might say or react to was unheard of by Lucia because that meant disagreeing" with Baryshnikov.
"It's as if they didn't give me room to be angry. It has taken too much out of me and I'm very, very tired of giving absolutely everything.
"It builds frustration to the point where frustration becomes anger, and anger becomes rage, and you are told to shut up while in a stage of rage.
"If I would just be quiet and always agree to do as they feel I should do then I would surely lose my mind.
"At times you think that the only solution is to stop caring because the only way to work and keep your job is to agree. And in order to agree you have to turn off your ideas and that is impossible for me.
"I'd much rather just not do it. I'm not in love with that kind of misery anymore."
Kirkland pointed out that her best-received ABT performances in the classics were not the spontaneous wonders some audience members assumed, but carefully plotted evenings where not a single movement was unrehearsed. She confirmed longstanding industry rumors that she had regularly demanded added rehearsal time and better coaching.
(Baryshnikov was unavailable for comment yesterday, and ABT had no additional comment on Kirkland's earlier complaints.)
Her managers from Dube Zakin Management Inc. are now sending a representative to chaperone Kirkland for every guest engagement. Superstars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova frequently travel with aides to make their on-the-road lives less stressful.
"I began with [NYCB ballet master George] Balanchine, who used to throw me on stage and I used to improvise," Kirkland said. "I have great instincts and I have a lot to fall back on. I have done performances where I have compromised and compromised and compromised and that has not been my idea of what I really want to do."
Kirkland said her new policy, despite her dislike of compromise, is that "if I do less than my best, it's still perfectly valid. I think it's more important to dance than not to dance."
The 28-year-old Kirkland was born in Bethlehem, Pa., and enrolled at the School of American Ballet, which is the New York City Ballet-affiliated dance academy. As a teen-age sensation, she joined NYCB in 1968, became a soloist the next year and a principal dancer in 1972.
In 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union and joined ABT. He said he had seen Kirkland dance in the Soviet Union while the NYCB was on tour there and had dreamed of dancing with her ever since. She was solicited to be his partner and later that year left NYCB to join ABT.
When she first arrived at ABT in 1974, she said, she felt inadequately trained for the requirements of the 19th-century story ballets. The style was alien to her "and you can't just look at it and put it on yourself. It was not trained into my body."
Kirkland recalled a time when she and Baryshnikov began rehearsing mime; the gestures that indicate such things as "I," "you," and "love."
"I didn't even know where to put my hand," Kirkland said. "Where is 'I?' The Russians learn it from when they're very little -- it could be on your stomach or on your head or on your elbow.
"I didn't know what to do . . . was embarrassed to even try. I said, 'I'll work on it.' I realized I didn't know what I was doing."
Kirkland said she spent years working by herself and with many outside coaches, paid for out of her own pocket.
Of Soviet dancers in general, she said, "I can't read their minds, but of course I can always feel a little resistance. It's there from the beginning. c"It's part of them.
"Are they difficult? No, they're not difficult, they're impossible.
"At the very beginning, I thought it was because we spoke different languages. But then, when they learned English, I realized that we still speak different languages.
"It's very difficult to have a conversation about the possibilities of a step" with a Soviet artist. "I say, 'Could we?' And they say, 'Just shut up and do it.' They seem to feel I have no right to have an idea . . . as if I'm taking something away from them.
"I've never had a far-off goal. It's never been 'I would like to become the best dancer in New York.' I only took on the immediate goal -- such as breaking through a limitation, learning what the teacher had to say or learning a ballet."
Baryshnikov left ABT in 1978 to join Kirkland's old company, the New York City Ballet. The ballerina said she feels he departed on short notice, leaving her disillusioned and without a permanent partner.
Asked if that disillusionment resulted in her losing her love for the art form, Kirkland responded, "Why not? Why should I continue to love something that has become so impossible?" She noted, however, "I still love dancing if it's in the right situation.
"From 8 years old, I remember that work was all-consuming. I was driven by it. There was no other direction in my life except my work as a dancer.
"My goals were immediate. After I finished working I concentrated on what I needed to work on next. Every minute of every day I was concentrating on the next moment. I always felt there was something that could be better within what I was doing."
"I disciplined myself all the time."
A masochist? "Well, I'm not anymore."
It was this driving passion that Kirkland said caused her to cancel performances, insist on what for some dancers would be excessive rehearsals and to become frustrated when ABT's management failed to favorably respond to Kirkland's expectation that perfection is the norm.
Regarding her refusal to perform last month at Goucher College, leaving about 1,000 patrons disappointed, Kirkland said, "I never canceled maliciously. "Canceling is hurting myself. [At Goucher] I was not thinking of those people. Yet I don't regret not doing the performance because I had very definite reasons for canceling. But if I had it to do again, I would not have allowed those reasons to build up.
"It was basically I was very unprepared for the performance.
"I have to have a reason -- to be motivated -- to dance and it's very difficult to find things that are really and truly interesting" these days.
"Unless there can be a place for my point of view about things, there is no reason . . .," Kirkland's voice trailed off.
"I do not want to live my life being tolerated. I need a repertoire and situations that are conducive to the process of working -- which is what I enjoy more than performing. I need the process of rehearsing and discovering."
Kirkland had a personal triumph in London last summer as one of the few Americans to ever guest with the Royal Ballet. She will return there for what she hopes will be a lengthy stay as a guest artist beginning in September.
"I would like to give it a chance.I'm looking forward to the Royal. They have graciously invited me and have been extremely supportive.
"I really felt good there. It was very hard to accept all the incredible love going on all around me." In London, she said, she received coaching and extra rehearsal time.
Even in ideal circumstances, Kirkland said, "I have nerves -- I feel devastated and immobilized by nerves half the time. The worst time is right before a performance or during rest periods.
"Most people seem to have an idea of what I should want out of life. What do you think I want? I haven't the slightest idea, except to dance."