Whenever Kaitlyn Gilliland steps out of the corps de ballet to dance principal roles—and she has done so often since joining the company as an apprentice in 2005—she dances with an artistry that rivals the troupe’s top ballerinas. Creamy-skinned, nearly 5’ 11”, with a long torso and even longer legs, Gilliland’s strong technique underlies a sense of theater and feminine glamour. Whether she is dancing the mysterious Dark Angel in Serenade, the menacingly seductive Siren in Prodigal Son, the lyrical Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker or the placid pas de deux of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, she possesses a mature talent that makes many wonder what she’s still doing in the corps. “I am just starting to grow into myself and my body as a dancer,” says Gilliland modestly. In fact, in the last year, she grew three quarters of an inch before turning 22.
Gilliland trained at Minnesota Dance Theatre in Minneapolis with her mother, former American Ballet Theatre dancer Lise Houlton, and her grandmother Loyce Houlton. The school emphasized strong ballet technique. In 2003, Gilliland began studying full-time at the School of American Ballet. While there, she was spotted by choreographer Eliot Feld, who later cast her in a tailor-made solo to a Philip Glass score, Étoile Polaire. Reviewing the première, Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times wrote, “A star was born.”
Gilliland’s favorite roles include many Robbins’ ballets. “Because I am introverted and shy, when I get onstage I tend to go into myself rather than to the audience,” she says. “Something like Piano Pieces
is very calm, centered and focused, and that’s how I like to feel onstage. I think Robbins’ work lends itself to not necessarily dancing for the audience, but as if the audience happened to walk in and you were dancing for yourself.”
She finds strictly classical roles more daunting. “Something like Sugar Plum Fairy is harder for me,” she says. “I love classical ballet. It’s the most exacting and precise movement, but I often elude myself when I try to get the steps right.” Given her stellar performance in The Nutcracker last December, it’s hard to know exactly why the insecurity persists.
Gilliland has grappled already with injury, which may yield a clue. In 2004, just after she had secured an apprenticeship with NYCB, she suffered a knee injury—some cartilage had detached from her left knee resulting in surgery, rehab and a year devoid of dancing. “Given what I’ve been through, I have to be really careful,” she says.
Sean Lavery, the assistant to Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, taught Gilliland at SAB and coached her as Sugar Plum. “She has an innate sense of elegance,” says Lavery. “She can’t make a vulgar move or do something that is not tasteful.” He also praises her intelligence, work ethic and sense of humor—“everything a ballet master is looking for.”
Gilliland fantasizes about dancing principal roles in Balanchine’s leotard ballets. “I love the abstractness of those ballets. The absence of costume and set allows the dancer to create her own mood,” she explains.
“I would say my career has been full of challenges that I didn’t see coming,” she says. But she claims she wouldn’t change any of it: “It has given me greater knowledge of who I am, how I cope and who I can be onstage. Some people mature faster in this environment than others. It has taken me a while to find my footing—I’m still finding it.”
At A Glance
Name: Kaitlyn Gilliland
Training: Minnesota Dance Theatre, School of American Ballet
Favorite ballets performed: Robbins’ Piano Pieces and Watermill
Dream repertoire: Balanchine’s Agon, Violin Concerto, Monumentum/Movements and Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun
Joseph Carman is the author of Round About The Ballet.