Cupcakes & Conversation with Kaitlyn Gilliland, Corps de ballet, New York City Ballet
Kaitlyn has been off-stage with an injury and so as part of our interview, Kaitlyn was happy to talk about her experiences and how she has turned the unexpected time away from dancing into something positive. I think that what she has to say will inspire anyone nursing an injury to have the necessary patience & foresight to think positively, and I hope her insightful advice will be helpful.
“Towards the end of our Spring Season at New York City Ballet, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot and told I’d be out for about two months. When you’re a dancer, there’s never a good time for an injury. This was particularly true for me; I was busy with debuts and new ballets and felt stronger and more confident on stage than I’d ever felt before.
Needless to say, I was devastated. It was helpful to have a clear diagnosis and treatment plan, but it didn’t undo the fact that I’d have to spend about two months off my foot. I’d been through a major injury before, so I knew the emotional ups and downs, but it’s difficult to avoid getting into a funk when you go from being active all day to being limited to the couch.
Since rest is really the only way to cure a stress fracture, I brought my boot home and spent the summer in Minnesota. I was determined to be back for NYC Ballet’s fall season, so I followed my doctor’s orders to the tee. I took my vitamins, used an ultrasound bone stimulator, iced, elevated, tried to keep the rest of my body in shape, and spent good, relaxing time with old friends.
The stress fracture healed beautifully. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t walk on my foot without extreme pain. After soliciting the advice of a few doctors, we found problems that originally went undiagnosed. That meant a new treatment plan, more uncertainty, more time off, and patience.
Fortunately, I seem to have more patience this time around. I think I’m starting to get better at appreciating all the things that still make me so lucky. It sounds cliché, but I think injuries can provide the opportunity to gain valuable perspective… if you let them.
In my experience, maintaining a healthy perspective is a discipline. There are still days where I get upset about the amount of time I’m losing to this injury, or the opportunities I’m missing, or what I could have done to prevent this in the first place. Dance is a very specialized and isolated world, so suddenly becoming an outsider can make one feel as though life is over. I know the feeling. I’m also learning, however, that this is all destructive thinking and it makes the time go very slowly. My best advice to any dancer going through an extended period of time off is to challenge your mind and yourself in new ways… once you finish all of your exercises! I’ve taken this time to get some college courses done and meet new people outside of the dance world. It’s really remarkable what I’ve learned during this time, and I have no doubt it will contribute to who I am as a dancer when I finally get to return to doing what I love. It takes effort to focus away from the negative and find productive ways to occupy your time, but who knows? It might make you better artist… and a better person.”
What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?
The ‘snooze’ button on my alarm. Monday’s our day off, but I like to try to get up early anyway to get things done. It rarely happens.
What are you looking forward to dancing this year ?
Anything. Everything. I’ve been out with a foot injury for a while, and it’s frustrating to feel so far away from being able to put on a pair of pointe shoes! Right now I’m focusing on getting healthy so I can get back to performing.
Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance ?
I’d love to perform with my younger sister, Raina. I remember when we were little we used to put music on and dance around the house for hours. I’d always ‘choreograph’ little stories for us to dance and cast the her as the ‘bad guy.’ She was such a good sport about it! Now, I’m lucky when I get to see her perform… she’s grown into a remarkable artist and woman. I’d love to share the stage with her at some point. I’ll leave the choreography to someone else!
If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance ?
I’ll dance anywhere there’s good music playing.
How do you prepare your pointe shoes ?
I cut the shank, glue the tips, sew on ribbons and elastics, cut the canvas on the inside of the shoe (to make them a little longer when my feet get swollen), bang them against the wall (to get rid of the noise), put a little water around my bunion area to soften the demi-pointe, and then they’re ready to go.
What is your daily routine at the moment ?
During our most recent season, I’d wake up, run to Starbucks, sew pointe shoes, take class, rehearse, eat, sew pointe shoes, rehearse, sew pointe shoes, perform, eat, sleep. I’m currently dealing with a foot injury that’s kept me out for a couple of months, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at physical therapy and at the gym. I’m also filling up my extra time with a few college courses.
You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite?
Well… I recently sat down at a table next to Conan O’Brian at a restaurant. I’m a huge fan and was embarrassingly star-struck, even when he tried to be friendly and make conversation. Given that experience, I think I’d rather admire the famous from afar and invite my good friends.
Who inspired you to dance ?
My mother and my grandmother… George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins… Darci Kistler and Wendy Whelan… then and now!
What is your best piece of advice ?
“Don’t fit in, fit out.”
How do you prepare in the hours before a show ?
Which role has tested you the most & how ?
Whatever role I’m dancing at the moment. Every role is a test… to go out and make it different, and better, each time you dance it.
If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create ?
I’m definitely not a designer, so I’d pass that responsibility on to Janie Taylor! She’s really creative and makes lovely costumes.
What do you look for in a dance partner ?
Trust, chemistry, and someone who’s willing to work.
What is your favourite quote ?
“Do. Now is the time. Relax is for the grave, dear.” -George Balanchine
Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you ?
I wish! I’m good at cartwheels, but that doesn’t really apply to ballet.
A phrase I use far too often is … ?
“Wait, where’s my phone?” I’m glued to my iPhone, yet somehow I always manage to lose track of it.
What’s been your best on-stage moment so far ?
It’s impossible to pick one! It’s also hard for me to remember certain moments because everything usually feels like a blur. I often get off stage and think “what just happened?” I do remember dancing a long solo from Jerome Robbins’ Piano Pieces, and feeling more exposed than I’ve ever felt before. The music coming from the piano was so quiet that I was sure the audience could hear my heart pounding and my breath quickening as I danced. It was strangely comforting to feel so vulnerable and human in front of so many people.
Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about ?
I’m really good at procrastinating. I don’t think that’s a secret though. Or a skill.
In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now ?