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Kaitlyn Gilliland: she's a throwback to the heyday of Balanchine ballerinas.

Making predictions about a dancer's future can be a tricky business. But last June, when 17-year-old Kaitlyn Gilliland made her entrance as the Dark Angel in Serenade at the School of American Ballet's workshop performance, she emitted an unmistakable aura. Apart from the obvious--she's tall, attractively thin, with long, expressive limbs, a graceful neck, and a face Raphael would dream of painting--the wisdom of what she conveyed onstage seemed positively preternatural. Flickering memories of past Balanchine ballerinas came to mind: the joyous musical phrasing and innocence of the young Gelsey Kirkland; an elongated, eloquent torso similar to Maria Calegari's; and a mysterious allure uncannily reminiscent of Allegra Kent. Beyond a rare coupling of vulnerability and technical confidence, Gilliland allowed her sixth sense of the ballet's dramatic subtext to shine through, prompting plenty in the audience to fantasize about the possibilities ahead for this nascent ballerina. Not surprisingly, Gilliland has created a ripple of excitement among dancegoers and the New York press, including a feature story in The New York Times.

Gilliland's talent arrives with an impressive pedigree. Her mother, Lise Houlton, was a beloved soloist with American Ballet Theatre, and a hand-picked favorite of Antony Tndor. Gilliland's grandmother, Loyce Houlton, founded Minnesota Dance Theatre in 1962, pioneering the synthesis of classical technique and modern dance. Two generations are not uncommon in mother-daughter dance careers, but three generations are rare.

Loyce Houlton, who died in 1995, discovered dance while she was at Garleton College during World War II. At a time when ballet and modern remained decidedly segregated, she studied with both George Balanchine and Doris Humphrey. "Without any shame she put herself in any class available," said Lise Houlton. When she started her own school in Minneapolis, grandma Houlton ran it herself--everything from fund-raising to teaching. "Balanchine, Limon, and Ashton gave her work at a minimum price," said Houlton. "She really loved strong classical technique and wanted to incorporate that into the school. But still her pulse was formed from the modern dance esthetic."

Watching the energy in Gilliland's long, feminine back, the focus of her gaze, and the reach of her port de bras right through to her bands, it is easy to spot her lineage. Houlton recalled a revelatory moment about her daughter, who was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Minneapolis from age 3. "One day back in our little New York apartment--she couldn't even walk yet--Kaity was eating mashed peas," said Houlton. "I always had music on. All of a sudden she looked as if she had gone into a trance and she dropped the peas and started moving her arms over her head. And I thought, 'Oh no, here we go.'"

Gilliland trained with a variety of teachers at Minnesota Dance Theatre, learning styles ranging from old school Vaganova to contemporary-minded David Howard. Starting pointe work at age 10, she evolved from a mouse into the Snow Queen in the annual Nutcracker performances. Gilliland attended SAB on scholarship for two summers, delaying her entry into the full-year program until she felt ready. Classes at the Professional Children's School enabled her to continue her academic studies while living at the NAB dorm.

"At SAB it's all about speed and musicality," explained Gilliland. "The teachers demand so much from you, and you improve so much. You're with all these dancers who were the best at their schools, and you're learning from each other." Among her teachers at SAB were Suki Sehorer, Kay Mazzo, and Darci Kistler. Though not a regular SAB faculty member, Violette Verdy inspired Gilliland with her joie de vivre and ability to coach mood, substance, and meaning into a phrase of movement through vivid imagery.

Because of her diverse background in ballet and modern, Gilliland left her career options open while at SAB. But when she was learning a solo from Agon in variations class, a sense of destiny smacked her on the forehead: "I remember thinking, 'This is how I want to dance.'" New York City Ballet was the place.

For the workshop performance, Gilliland danced Suzanne Farrell's role in excerpts from Union Jack, as well as Serenade, which was coached by Schorer. "I've always liked to think I can jump back and forth from happy to sad, dramatic to playful, so I think it was a good test for me to develop those areas in my dancing," said Gilliland. "During Serenade, I was aware of the other people on stage, but I was very into my own story. Union Jack was more like a community--we rooted for everybody and played off each other."

Before the last workshop performance, eight of the students, including Gilliland, were told to assemble for a photo shoot onstage. The school faculty stood in a semicircle, and Peter Martins suddenly stepped forward to congratulate the dancers on their new positions as apprentices with New York City Ballet. "I started to laugh, and then I cried," said Gilliland. "There's a picture of us all reacting to him--we were shocked."

That photo might be historic one day. In the meantime, imagine the satisfaction of sitting back and watching this young dancer's sixth sense take over the sense that lets a ballerina be a ballerina.

Joseph Carman, a professional ballet dancer now retired, is a frequent contributor to DM, The New York Times, and The Advocate.
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Title Annotation:On the Rise
Author:Carman, Joseph
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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