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Dancing on My Grave <i> by Gelsey Kirkland with Greg Lawrence (Doubleday: $17.95; 285 pp.) </i>

Bernheimer, The Times' music/dance critic, has been observing Gelsey Kirkland's triumphs and tribulations since 1970

Ballerinas, according to popular cliche, are supposed to be delicate wind-up dolls.

They must do little but look sweet as they trip innocently--on pointe, of course--through an idealized world of crinoline, roses and applause. They are supposed to be wound up by benign magicians called choreographers, and they are supposed to be eternally grateful for the attention. If anything occupies their pretty little heads--as opposed to their pretty little feet--it must be nothing more compelling than the silent voice that counts their fouettes .

The cliche has not fit the great ballerinas of the past. The most memorable ones have commanded probing minds as well as disciplined bodies. They have been able to convey a personal vision of dance as drama and, in the loftiest instances, dance as a metaphor of life. They have, of course, suffered for their art.

Gelsey Kirkland was never a wind-up doll. Nor, alas, was she the sort of ballerina who could break the mold with impunity. She was, apparently by nature, an insecure individualist, an instinctive doubter, a reflexive fighter and, perhaps, an unwitting masochist. She suffered beyond the norm.

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That is what made her performances so exciting. That, we learn from her daring, disturbing and extraordinarily poignant autobiography, is what drove her to the brink of personal and professional ruin.

The use of the past tense may, or may not, be appropriate here. Kirkland is 33 now. Her career need not be over. She made a critically successful return to the stage in London in March after a lengthy self-imposed retirement. She sustained an injury soon thereafter, however, and the future remains unclear.

Dancers are fragile creatures, even under the best of circumstances. The circumstances in Kirkland’s life looked like the best, at the beginning and on the surface. But there were problems from the start. The dark nature of her memoir is defined in the dedication:

“In memory of Joseph Duell, 1956-1986, that the cry for help might yet be heard.”

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Duell was a leading dancer with the New York City Ballet, the company that trained Kirkland and accommodated her first triumphs. His suicide has never been adequately explained.

George Balanchine, the genius who created the New York City Ballet in his own exalted image, admired Kirkland enough to elevate her to principal status when she was 19. He entrusted numerous key assignments to her, and she blossomed in them. Still, Kirkland portrays “Mr. B” as an egomaniac and tyrant who “encouraged his dancers not to think.”

She recalls the master’s favorite ballerina, Suzanne Farrell: “Her long neck and legs, her exotic line and delicate features, made her Balanchine’s perfect instrument. She conveyed a sense of movement, without the slightest pretense of thought or personality. . . . Her success and his fixation led to a company formula.”

In order to fit that formula, Kirkland starved herself. “Mr. B did not merely say, ‘Eat less.’ He said, repeatedly, ‘Eat nothing.’ ” She also remodeled her face and body, embarking on a series of “gruesome medical procedures.”

“I would become hooked on the pain,” she says, “addicted to the voluptuous misery that bound my sexual identity to ballet, to an ever increasing threshold of anguish. I was on my way to stardom, to the Balanchine look.”

At the same time, her personal insecurities led her to a series of sexual adventures designed in part, no doubt, to mask her insecurities and paranoia. The adventures, involving the great and not-so-great, are well chronicled here.

Her professional successes grew apace, as did her professional doubts. Balanchine chose her for the title role in a crucial revision of “Firebird.” Her bliss was compromised, as usual, by doubt and distrust.

“Mr. B wanted me to play a bird. I wanted to play a creature who would be something more. I was determined to endow the bird with character, with human compassion and strength.”

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That determination became a precarious Leitmotif throughout her career. Kirkland regrets having been unable to really talk with her would-be Svengali. Perhaps, she now muses, she was not ready. In any case, the speculation lingers:

“The difficulty with Balanchine, as with many of the Russian men I have known, was that he did not think women were capable of engaging him with ideas, or that Americans were capable of understanding his Russian homeland. We hurt each other in so many ways.”

As with many of the Russian men I have known. The passing reference brings up Mikhail Baryshnikov, the charismatic, brilliant, moody, romantic idol who became the Kirov’s loss and, for a time, Kirkland’s gain. She first encountered him while on a visit to Leningrad with the New York City Ballet.

It was a traumatic pilgrimage in several ways. It was in the Soviet Union that she witnessed the fusion of dance and drama that was her ideal and that had been the hallmark of an earlier generation of dancers in the United States. The fusion survived, she found, at the Kirov. “I was tormented by what seemed unattainable--the method by which to transform the body into an expressive instrument.”

It also was in the Soviet Union that Balanchine gave her some “vitamins” to bolster her strength. The pills turned out to be amphetamines. “I knew nothing about drugs,” she writes, “and never considered the danger.”

It would not be long before she knew a great deal.

With telling detail, “Dancing on My Grave” goes on to chronicle Kirkland’s inevitable break with Balanchine (he said she could come back . . . “if there is room”) and her extended love-hate relationship with Baryshnikov (“the image of Misha suffering magnified his appeal. . . . Satisfied to satisfy him, I was about to become an expert on anticlimax, both in the bedroom and on the stage”).

Far more disturbing revelations come later. Kirkland describes her torturous eating disorders in graphic detail. She spares herself, and the reader, even less when she details her descent into cocaine dependency, a horrifying descent undertaken at the instigation of another Ballet Theater principal, Patrick Bissell.

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“I was his drug partner,” she admits. “The drug provided all the answers. I no longer had to fight for my ideas. I no longer had to fight to express anything.”

Amplification comes later, after at least one brush with death. “Cocaine enabled me to avoid misery, the agony that existed in a theater that rejected perfection in favor of expediency and box-office receipts.” Cocaine also reduced her art to a cruel mockery.

If the patently unhappy book has a happy ending--and it may be too early to tell--it begins in a most unlikely way. One night in New York, a desperate Kirkland tries to make an illicit purchase. “I was a speed freak, a Valium addict, a coke casualty, and a total wreck,” she explains. “Even my teeth were falling out.”

As the fates would have it, she wasn’t the only desperate one. “I met a young man outside the dealer’s door. Both of us banged away, trying to awaken the occupant, to no avail. The young man and I would spend the night together. His name was Gregory Lawrence. Tall and wiry, he was a poet of sorts.”

The poet of sorts and the incipient ex-ballerina provide mutual support. Together, they embark on a program of rehabilitation. Together, they write this book.

The autobiography, Kirkland states, is “the final therapeutic stage of my recovery, a labor of constant love. We were sustained in our collaboration by the hope that others might at least recognize, if not avoid, the traps I found waiting for me.”

If one can accept the acknowledgement at the front of the book, the collaboration was also sustained by a Doubleday editor “who believed in the project from the beginning and--in spite of the authors’ occasional resistance--did make it possible.” The editor: Jacqueline Onassis.

Kirkland’s final words do not ring with unalloyed optimism. “Though this season may be my last,” she writes, “the steps continue after the body has been stilled. The dance goes on forever. So shall I. So shall we. Let that be my epitaph, my prayer, my final gesture.”

Kirkland probably would be dancing today if she had only played by the rules, accepted the strictures, kept her mouth shut and shucked her agonies with her toe shoes. Still, an unsettling question lingers:

How would she be dancing?


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