Picks and Pans Review: Dancing on My Grave

updated 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gelsey Kirkland with Greg Lawrence

Ballet can be a fiendish vocation—a ritual of self-abasement to impossible standards of beauty and physical skill. But by the third chapter of this erratically intriguing book, it should be clear that if the tyranny of a George Balanchine had not existed, young Gelsey would have invented it. Her own tendency to compulsive behavior—a by-product, she suggests, of a father's messy slide into alcoholic ruin—was evident long before Gelsey, 8, following her older sister Johnna, first submitted herself to the brutal rigors of the School of American Ballet. (Johnna is now a rug designer in Los Angeles.) What would ultimately prove so dangerous to Gelsey, who pushed herself into a cocaine-besotted breakdown by 28, is that the peculiar manias of the ballet are such a hospitable environment for self-abusive behavior. In Kirkland's case, she succumbed to the emphasis on a super thin body type that makes eating disorders so common among dancers. Later she had silicon implants put in her breasts, had her earlobes clipped and had her lips enlarged. Meanwhile, the stagey romanticism of the dance lured the young star—who was 17 when she became a soloist with the New York City Ballet—into a series of volatile affairs with her partners: Peter Martins, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patrick Bissell. Kirkland's ungenerous assessments of their conduct, in and out of bed, have generated a lot of comment. In fact, this is essentially a book about ballet, and about Kirkland's own demons, artistic and otherwise. Anyone indifferent to, say, the technical and intellectual challenges of interpreting Giselle may flag well before Misha plays the cad or little Gelsey takes her trip through the seven circles of chemical hell. (Doubleday, $17.95)

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