Kaitlyn Gilliland is arguably the busiest freelance dancer in New York. Which is perhaps not the path that many expected the former New York City Ballet prodigy to tread. But as she moves through a dress rehearsal of Miro Magloire’s Quartet one evening in November, she demonstrates the qualities that make so many choreographers want to work with her: the eloquent neck and torso, the unusually expressive arms and hands, the pre-Raphaelite aura of mystique, the exploration deep into a role (in this case, a woman trapped in a quadrangle of dancers). Standing 5′ 10″ in ballet slippers, her long legs unfold and retract with melodious poeticism.
Although she’s retired from NYCB, one semester away from graduating Columbia University with a degree in psychology, Gilliland, 27, has hardly given up dance. In fact, she’s in it more than ever. In the last three years, she has worked with emerging choreographers like Emery LeCrone, Adam Hendrickson and Marcelo Gomes; established artists like Pontus Lidberg and Will Rawls; and icons such as Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp. With each project, it seems she grows her artistry further.
Gilliland first turned heads in 2006 when Feld chose to create Étoile Polaire, a 12-minute solo, on the 18-year-old apprentice. In addition to what he called her “extraordinary magical quality,” Feld sensed his muse’s ambivalence in the NYCB studios. “He could see that I was trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into the company,” says Gilliland. “He said, ‘Don’t fit in, fit out.’ It’s been a very hard thing for me to do. It’s hard for a lot of dancers to do, to embrace the things that make them unlike anyone else.”
Étoile Polaire was a sensational debut, but perhaps a misleading one. Gilliland went on to dance many vividly memorable principal roles with the company, such as her mysterious Dark Angel in Serenade, a bewitchingly sensual Siren in Prodigal Son, an eloquent Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, the enigmatic woman in Jerome Robbins’ Watermill and the intensely hypnotic pas de deux from his Glass Pieces. Many assumed she would become an NYCB star, disseminating her singular glamour and artistry in the tradition of Tanaquil LeClercq, Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. But in 2011, Gilliland, still a member of the corps de ballet, left the company.
“It wasn’t so much that there was too much pressure on me but that I felt like I was trying to play a part,” says Gilliland, the daughter of former American Ballet Theatre soloist Lise Houlton and granddaughter of Minnesota Dance Theatre founder Loyce Houlton. “There were a lot of ballerina roles that I should have been excited about when I was doing them—and I sometimes had trouble finding myself in them.” Compounding the problem was a series of debilitating injuries: eroding knee cartilage, multiple broken bones in her feet and a back injury from a partnering mishap in rehearsal.
After bursting into tears in ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy’s office one day, unable to dance, watch or sit through another “Snow” rehearsal, Gilliland told Peter Martins and Dunleavy, “I love this company and I can’t stay here as a dancer.” Martins reassured her that the company was there to support her in anything she did. There was, however, no discussion about an open door in the future.
She immersed herself in school, pursuing a pre-med concentration at Columbia. But she was coaxed back into the studio by Emery LeCrone, then resident choreographer for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative. The process clicked. “I remember Saturday afternoons in the studio together being the highlight of my week,” says Gilliland. “She wanted to hear how I felt about things and wanted to incorporate my idiosyncrasies into the movement. There was this dialogue we were having: I was demanding answers about how movement should feel or how I wanted it to feel—and she was listening.” The weekly rehearsals also reminded her of the choreographic workshops and classes at her family studio in Minnesota, where creativity was prioritized.
“She’s a very honest performer, so when something feels wrong in her body, she needs to tell you,” says LeCrone. “That for me is a great thing.” When the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series commissioned LeCrone to choreograph both a classical and a contemporary work to the same music, Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor, the choreographer chose Gilliland for the contemporary section. “I was looking to push dancers in a new way,” says LeCrone, “and I knew working with dancers coming from a more modern, improvisational-based background would really help her.”
Above: With Michele Wiles in Brian Reeder’s Surmisable Units. Photo by Stephanie Berger; Courtesy BalletNext.
Gilliland has further explored her artistry with other contemporary choreographers such as Pontus Lidberg, the Swedish-born dancemaker who expertly folds ballet vocabulary into his contemporary works and dance films. Last fall, Gilliland performed in two of his pieces at the International Ballet Festival of Havana. “Kaitlyn has an expansive yet natural movement quality,” says Lidberg. “She picks up subtle details that relate to other aspects of creating dances: structure, interpersonal relationships. Her ballet technique doesn’t stand in the way of her exploring movements or shapes that lie beyond ballet, or what is considered ballet.”
Gilliland regards herself as an exploring artist. “One goal moving forward is to allow myself to cultivate dance relationships that are really meaningful to me,” she says, citing her connection with Lidberg. “I like to think that the more experiences I have, the more I bring with me. So it’s not just going from one job to another. They inform each other.”
Still, schlepping between gigs has not been easy. It means a lot of subway time and navigating schedules and contracts. Public reactions to her decision for independence have ranged from enthusiastic support to predictions of career disaster.
Gilliland hasn’t relegated NYCB to the rearview mirror, either. The management has been very supportive: She briefly managed the New York Choreographic Institute, and recognizing her knack for connecting with kids (she had taught students at Minnesota Dance Theatre), the company offered her a teaching job at the School of American Ballet. Instructing the younger students has helped her shape a new perspective on her own dancing. “I always wanted to do things well without necessarily understanding how or why,” says Gilliland, who teaches ages 6 to preteen, and occasionally intermediate students. “With these students, I tell them it’s okay to fall, to lose your balance here as long as you take that information and apply it. I started to think, What happened to me? When did I stop hearing that advice for myself? When did I stop incorporating this into what I do?”
Gilliland has ruled out dancing with another major ballet company. “That was not the right environment for me,” she says. She cites both Wendy Whelan and Swedish dancer Nadja Sellrup for inspiring her through “their knowledge that they know better than anyone else who they are and what they want to do.”
In January, Gilliland appeared in the PBS telecast of the Gershwin Prize tribute to Billy Joel in an excerpt from Tharp’s Movin’ Out. In February, through Danspace Project’s Platform 2015, Gilliland paired up with choreographer/dancer/writer Will Rawls to create something completely new. “This commission is not about making a performance,” says Rawls. “It’s about doing the research and presenting our exchange. We’ve been exploring different ways of communicating with each other and this idea of being strangers who are meeting each other for the first time.”
Gilliland says they have found similarities: “He talks about defining what his practice is. I realize I’ve spent a lot of time trying to un-define what my practice is.”
Although she has wavered about her direction after graduation, all her endeavors have led back to dance, and her roles as dancer, teacher, manager and artist have made her view her life and career more dynamically: “When I wake up in the morning, there’s one thing I’m really excited about all the time now—it’s dance. In every sense of the word.”
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.