At 17, a California Tomboy Becomes Balanchine's Newest Baby Ballerina

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the curtain goes up this week at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, the spotlight—and attention—will be focused on 17-year-old Darci Ann Kistler. She is the latest of master choreographer George Balanchine's "baby ballerinas"—and arguably the most delightful. On opening night she will dance the lead in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 (choreography by Peter Martins). It is only the prelude to a season of plum parts. At 77, Balanchine is rumored to be planning a new Sleeping Beauty with Kistler in the principal role of Aurora.

Every so often the revered master of the New York City Ballet singles out a young dancer and elevates her as his "muse." Yet never—not with Suzanne Farrell nor with Gelsey Kirkland—has Balanchine brought a protégée along so quickly. But then, Darci is different, exemplifying the new, robust breed of young California dancers.

"She rides with the music as if it were a roller coaster," says dance critic Clive Barnes, "and at times she permits herself an almost audible scream." Adds New York magazine critic Tobi Tobias, "She seems to dance for the sheer thrill of commanding her body through space." Or, as Darci says of herself, "I enjoy dancing the way somebody else enjoys diving off a cliff into the ocean. I do it for that one moment of ecstasy. I may go three months at a time and never feel that outburst—and then something will happen, and I'll go straight to heaven." Teacher Irina Kosmovska says Kistler works so hard that "she commits suicide on the floor." Yet she is also a giggly, coltish teenager who wears white anklets with her high heels and munches endlessly on jelly beans.

"My dad would have liked it if I'd become a lady wrestler," says Darci, the youngest of five children and the only daughter of a Riverside, Calif, family physician. Father Jack wrestled at UCLA and Berkeley, and all his sons have become champions in the sport. "I'd be doing my homework," recalls Darci, "and they'd sneak up and flip me. Or they'd pick me up and throw me in the pool." Says brother Lindley, a 20-year-old varsity wrestler at Arizona State University, "We got her into condition for the ballet."

A tomboy by necessity, Darci remembers being taken at age 5 to Los Angeles by her mother, Alicia, to watch Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. "You know how you get the feeling there in the pit of your stomach?" says Darci. "I just said, 'Oh, I want to do that!' "

At 6, she was enrolled in a creative dance class in Riverside. By 12, she was commuting 150 miles daily to L.A. to study with the notoriously demanding Kosmovska. At 14, she went East to the School of American Ballet, the conservatory for Balanchine's troupe, where her leap to the head of the class startled even sophisticated teachers. Christmas 1980, Darci looked at the casting sheet for The Nutcracker and saw her name as the Sugar Plum Fairy, paired with the City Ballet's lead male dancer, Peter Martins. Recalls Darci: "Mr. B was standing right there, and I said, 'Mr. Balanchine, is this a mistake?' " It wasn't, and at the end of a magical performance Darci went to Martins' dressing room with a program. "I wanted him to autograph it for my mother. She would never believe me if he didn't."

Ever since, columnists have paired Darci with the 35-year-old Martins, who broke up last spring with his girlfriend of a dozen years, ballerina Heather Watts. Kistler and Martins insist they are just friends. "I never was much interested in dating," says Darci. "To me, nothing, not John Travolta, not Mick Jagger, not even Luke Skywalker, is as fascinating as dancing."

As for Darci's mother, she has been relaxed since she saw her daughter and Peter in a restaurant with a group of dancers. "There was Martins sipping a glass of white wine and Darci eating a hot fudge sundae," says Alicia Kistler. "I knew we had nothing to worry about."

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