While the autobiography of her sister Gelsey is scorching the dance world, Johnna Kirkland resides quietly in Los Angeles making artisan floor cloths and place mats.
But as this former ballerina of the now-defunct Los Angeles Ballet tells it, the career discrepancy between the soeurs Kirkland has always existed.
They began on equal footing, so to speak, at the School of American Ballet. There, under George Balanchine’s tutelage, they both flourished. Johnna started in New York City Ballet at 15; the 13-year-old Gelsey came later.
Within a few years, however, their paths diverged. One became the celebrated partner of Mikhail Baryshnikov and moved into the American Ballet Theatre spotlight; the other accepted John Clifford’s invitation to the ballet hinterlands of Los Angeles where he was forming a little company for which he had big ambitions.
“But everything Gelsey did, I did,” says Kirkland. “And vice versa. With this difference: The world knew about her. I was invisible.”
The slender and taller Kirkland is referring to bouts with anorexia nervosa--at one point she danced hereabouts looking dangerously emaciated. And she also suffered the consequences of heavy drug abuse. And an anguished childhood.
Yet the features of her delicate face remain placid as she sips a double espresso in a Beverly Hills cafe. Big blue eyes speak with startling honesty and betray no bitterness. Soft bangs fringe her brow and a floral scarf casually draped around her shoulders gives the 40-year-old craftswoman a homebody look.
Kirkland gave up dancing in 1983, two years after breaking her foot.
“It was never the same from that time on,” she says. “Pain went with every step I took. That was also when the company (Los Angeles Ballet) stopped paying its dancers,” so it seemed a natural finale.
Until then, dancing had been her whole life. But while she admits to being satisfied with her present career, she misses “the instant gratification of performing.”
The demise of the company, she says, can be blamed on “John’s egotism and the fact that he was easily threatened. The minute his administrators became effective, for instance, he would fire them. It was a case of the blind leading the blind.”
However Kirkland refuses to make the dance world responsible for the troubles she and Gelsey had. “Sure, there are things out there that need to be changed for the well-being of future ballet dancers. Their obsession with thinness as an example.
“I remember as a child hearing another 10-year-old moan that she ate a whole yogurt for lunch--plain, without fruit--and how it wrecked her diet. That shouldn’t be.”
Kirkland also points to “the ridiculous pressures put on these little kids. They’re supposed to survive disappointments the way adults do, without showing it. And that’s the case at all schools, not just Balanchine’s.
“The bottom line is that Gelsey and I were destined to be self-destructive. No one could come out of our neurotic family unscarred. But she blames the ballet system and points the finger at her bad guys: Balanchine, Baryshnikov.
“I see myself as ultimately responsible for the addiction and anorexia. When that’s the path you’re heading for, it doesn’t matter if you work in accounting or dance. You’ll find disaster somehow or other.”
Contrary to what some may conclude from her sister’s confessional memoirs, Johnna Kirkland says that Balanchine never approved of drug abuse. Gelsey’s potentially fatal bout with drugs came many years after leaving New York City Ballet.
Furthermore, Johnna Kirkland has words of high praise for Balanchine: “He is to ballet what Kandinsky was to art.
“He changed the whole shape of dance. In my mind, linking him with a drug situation (as her sister does in one chapter) is ridiculous. The atmosphere he created at City Ballet was more like Nixon conservatism than anything else. I don’t understand Gelsey’s neurotic bind with him.”
It has been 10 years, says Kirkland, since she has been free of her own drug problem. In contrast to the dance world’s wide knowledge of Gelsey’s cocaine abuse--which led to brain seizures and breakdown of control during rehearsals and performances--Johnna had the advantage of relative privacy.
“No one was looking,” she explains, lighting a cigarette and softly puffing smoke high into the air.
“I had not made the cover of Time magazine (as Gelsey had in 1978), so my activities were hardly newsworthy. We did the same things but at different times. Luckily, I didn’t make as much money, so I couldn’t afford the big-time drugs she could.”
Again, Kirkland takes sole responsibility for her addiction. She insists that no one led her down the wayward path and that her habit was not known to Los Angeles Ballet.
Although she thanks her ongoing psychotherapy for the insights that seem to be a stabilizing force, she claims to have understood all along that being anorexic had its dividends.
“The bonus of self-starvation was always the same: Attention. It got me attention. I had such small self-worth that I would go to almost any extreme for love. It was my way of competing with Gelsey and her magazine cover story. After all, none of my accomplishments meant anything if they didn’t measure up to hers.”
As for their supposed closeness, Kirkland laughs:
“The family joke was Gelsey’s cosmetic surgeries (silicone implants in breast, lips and instep). They were never acknowledged. When we noticed that her mouth looked different, my mother told us that Gelsey was stung on the lips by a bee.”
But despite their lifelong estrangement--Kirkland says she and her sister were always in different places--they have spoken frequently by phone the last few years. “Mostly, she would call to check on fact chronology for her book.”
There is no longer a link through dance, however. One sister wrote an autobiography and intends to teach the principles of her art as she has reformulated them. The other has found a new creative medium in acrylics and paint.
“Nothing has changed,” says Johnna Kirkland. “We still occupy different places in the world.”