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Portrait of a lady
Jennifer Gelfand leaves the company

Jennifer Gelfand had what started out as a storybook dance career. At 10, she played the marionette version of Kitri in the Don Quixote that Rudolf Nureyev brought to Boston Ballet, the 1982 production that put the company on the international dance map; she was also Clara in The Nutcracker. Invited to appear as a guest artist in Boston Ballet’s 1989 Don Quixote, she made headlines when she left her audience seat to replace an injured Laura Young as Kitri opposite the fabled Fernando Bujones. She immediately joined the company as a soloist; the following year, she was promoted to principal. In The Four Temperaments (Sanguinic), Theme and Variations, Who Cares?, and Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (a/k/a Rubies), she proved that you don’t need a Balanchine body to dance Balanchine. She did Romeo and Juliet in 1989, Giselle in 1991, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in 1993, Swan Lake in 1994, Coppélia and The Taming of the Shrew in 1995. She brought sizzle to Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room and Waterbaby Bagatelles and Lila York’s Celts; she was all flounce and high dudgeon as the Short Stepsister in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, and as Flora in his undead-on-arrival Dracula, she hyperventilated in a vain attempt to give some life to the proceedings.

Yet in a company that overflowed with talented ballerinas, Gelfand never quite rose to the top. Trinidad Sevillano was just as technically accomplished and smoldered with sensuality; Larissa Ponomarenko had a cool elegance and a longer line. Gelfand was typecast as the short, spunky, cheerleader type, just right for Coppélia or Cinderella or the first act of Giselle but not the girl of your dreams in Romeo and Juliet or Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. Especially popular with young audience members, she was often relegated to Saturday-matinee performances.

In 1995, she accepted an invitation to guest for a year at Birmingham Royal Ballet. There was speculation that she might not come back; she did, and she was a more mature artist, as her performances in the 1997 Romeo and Juliet and the 1998 Swan Lake attested. She was always a plucky Olga in Onegin, but she never got to dance Tatiana; she didn’t appear in Christopher Wheeldon’s Firebird, and she didn’t dance Esmeralda in Michael Pink’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After Maina Gielgud signed on to be the company’s new artistic director, in the fall of 2000, it was reported that Gelfand wouldn’t be offered a contract for the 2001-2002 season; Gielgud didn’t take up the post, and Gelfand did return, but she didn’t dance Giselle, or Cio-Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, and last season, Mikko Nissinen’s first as artistic director, she hardly danced at all, being passed over for Onegin, La Fille Mal Gardée, and the Balanchine program. That led to her decision to retire, at age 32, after the two performances she gave last weekend in Don Quixote, the same work that launched her career.

Throughout that career, Gelfand had a large numbers of both admirers and detractors. I went from the latter to the former. Early on, I was frustrated by her lack of emotional and sometimes physical weight. Her fouettés were (and still are) fabulous; she had exquisite chaîné and piqué turns and bourrée steps, and never mind that her line in arabesque wasn’t the longest or straightest. But her jetés didn’t go anywhere, just as she didn’t go toward her partner. (One problem is that the company never developed a regular partner for her; she was paired with just about everyone short of Olivier Wecxsteen.) She tended to look more comfortable dancing by herself.

That changed, though not immediately, after she came back from England. With Laszlo Berdo in Romeo and Juliet and Rob Wallace in Swan Lake, she focused and reached out, and her body language was that of a woman as well as a ballerina. She brought affecting detail to smaller roles, like Olga in Onegin and Suzuki in Butterfly. She was a great American dancer in the company’s Tharp repertoire and Lila York’s Ode to Joy, and especially in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, first wallflower tomboy and then all-American woman.

In 14 years with Boston Ballet, Gelfand was never injured; even after she’d fallen out of favor, she was always there to step in and do extra Nutcracker performances as the run took its toll. Her absence from Onegin and Fille last season was, for me at least, a major disappointment. She showed more class in leaving than the company did in letting her go. And as she proved Saturday night, she can still dance.

Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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