Art + Culture

Q+A: Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet

Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet is a classical ballet company led by Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov that focuses on training talented students from around the world in the art of dramatic storytelling in ballet. We sat down with executive director Larry Henry to learn more.

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How was Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet started?

Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov decided they wanted to open up a ballet academy about five years ago to give the kind of training that they think is important. They believe so much in storytelling within ballet and didn’t think that this kind of training and technique were [available] so they created the academy [which] has quickly grown.

What is unique about Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet?

There is a lot going on in the world of contemporary dance, and as interesting as it is, it is not what Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov want to teach. They are much more interested in ballet that communicates a story and is evocative of universal themes. It’s the kind of training that emphasizes storytelling. The training itself is also geared towards the individual dancer and there is improv, music, mime and core dynamics along with traditional training, make it a unique academy.

Over the summer, we also brought almost 300 students from around the world to come here to DUMBO to study classical ballet and I think the community saw the effect of all of these young people going to the delis, restaurants and coffee shops. People were really charmed by what we call the “bun-heads” or ballerinas walking around the neighborhood.

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Why are you located in DUMBO?

Space like this is scarce in the city. The thing that you need when dancing is column-free space and high ceilings for people to be able to [perform] ballet and for partnering, where people are lifted. These needs narrow it down to a small amount of real estate. Dance companies and presenters around the city have trouble finding that kind of space. So when Michael Chernov saw this space, he thought it ideal. The ceilings are incredibly high and we could even create another layer studios here and it would still be incredibly high.

DUMBO is unique in that it still has these warehouses. Unfortunately a lot of them are being converted into housing which is wonderful but on the other hand, we need to maintain artist creation space. Places that are community-driven. Places where people are able to come in to take class or be an audience member and see what artists are doing and [how] they are creating work. We need to have dialogue between artists and audiences. We need to maintain these spaces or else neighborhoods become condos. A big push of mine is to try and make this not only a unique property but also an essential cultural gem so that somebody [even if] it’s not us, maintains this level of activity in DUMBO. We are not just doing one show a night. We are running from 8am to 10pm. We’ve got programming all day long with the all-day academy, after-school classes, rehearsals and performances. So this is not the same thing as a theater production simply performing at night and then leaving. We have hundreds of people all day long.  I’d really like to see that effect the local businesses.

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Did the Academy become more successful after moving to DUMBO?

It takes time to grow [after] moving into a new space. Everybody knew us in Tribeca and for people around the country and the world, we are not in Manhattan anymore so suddenly this is a Brooklyn thing. It is taking a bit of marketing on our end. For example, we needed to do our outreach here in Brooklyn especially in DUMBO to try to get new families to join our after-school program. We’ve actually been successful and built that program back up to the levels we were at in Tribeca.

Our production of The Nutcracker that performed in December was also a huge boon to the community because suddenly they have a world-class ballet happening right down the street at a third of the price of Lincoln Center. So families were bringing their kids here and not only the kids that were studying here but from all over Brooklyn, people [came to watch our Nutcracker performance).

Has there been any exciting projects or highlights that have happened since the company has moved to DUMBO?

Absolutely, we have artists coming in here all the time that are creating amazing work. Wendy Whelan, a prima ballerina [who] was at City Ballet for a number of years, came with her husband to create a wonderful new opera.  They were working with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn based International Contemporary Ensemble rehearsing the piece that was going to end up at BAM. So we had incredible artists in here bumping into contemporary choreographers at the same time. We also have the Hip Hop Conservatory that is here four days a week in the evening. We have all of this happening on one level. The lobby is a melting pot of arts and art activities which then cross pollinates and people understand what’s going on. So this entire opening of this space has been exciting.

What’s your favorite spot in DUMBO?

I love getting coffee twice a day at Brooklyn Roasting Company. I love meeting donors at Atrium or suggesting folks go to Almar. Many times a week I’m running in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I think it’s an extraordinary thing to be able to take in all that DUMBO has to offer: the architecture and the incredible views. But quite honestly, it’s the people that we get to bump into down the street at Olympia or at the corner bar. These are all places that I have people come meet me or I just bump into people that I meet.  So even on the streets, it’s wonderful.