By Olivia Aylmer
Photographs by Jordan Tiberio
Olivia Aylmer: What women have inspired you in your dance career thus far?
Kaitlyn Gilliland: Twyla Tharp. Wendy Whelan. Nadja Sellrup. Leslie Curtis, Claudia Schreier, Caitlin Trainor, Emery LeCrone. My grandmother, mother, and sister. I also have to give my dad a shout-out here. He has supported both my unconventional career path and my continued education every step of the way. He never misses a performance—or the opportunity to ask me how my grad school applications are coming along.
OA: What advice would you offer to other young women considering a less conventional professional path, particularly within the arts?
KG: Change, contradict yourself, and question everything!
OA: How have your ballet roots shaped you not just as a dancer but also as a person?
KG: Ballet class is really the strongest tie I still have to my roots as I branch out into more contemporary projects. It’s like morning coffee for me: I can’t really get my day going properly without it. When I’m traveling a lot or starting a new project or going through daunting professional or personal change, its routine is a constant in my daily schedule that helps me find my footing every day—physically, yes, but also emotionally and spiritually. It’s my “me” time.
I love what I learned about discipline and respect in the ballet classroom. I think these lessons have served me well.
OA: How would you define “fearlessness,” and in what ways do you feel it applies to your current practice as a freelance dancer?
KG: I think fearlessness is the commitment to being as honest as I can be in any given moment as an artist. That means I have to allow myself—and my body in particular, as a dancer—to change with each new day. Sometimes, when I get too attached to previous success, or to what I think must work today based on what worked yesterday, today becomes a failure because it’s different. It’s not a failure. It’s just a new day.
As a dancer, I’ve learned that I am a choreographer’s ally only when I am unselfconscious enough to try ideas without commentary or insecurity. If I’m judging myself or the movement before I give it a chance to explain or develop itself, based on something I think I know, I’m letting my own fear get in the way of creating what could be good work. Being a willing, open-minded collaborator requires a certain amount of fearlessness.
Of course, I’m hardly fearless. I have over a decade of intense, high-pressure experience in my profession, yet at five minutes to performance, I am still overwhelmed by the immensity of my nerves. So almost every evening I go onstage with a little adrenaline. I’m usually glad it’s there.
OA: Do you feel it's more important to define one's practice and artistic point of view or to stay open to the possibility that they might shift with time and experience?
KG: To each her own, I think. I define my practice by the rituals that I feel are important to keep me in tune with my physicality. Otherwise, I try to stay open. When I get too set in a specific way of working, or in defining the kind the work I do, it usually means I’m talking too much and not listening enough.
OA: The life of a professional dancer is no easy feat, despite how graceful and effortless she or he may appear onstage. When you face frustration and uncertainty, how do you find—and maintain—a second wind that carries you onto the next project, the next challenge, or even simply the next performance?
KG: The answer for me is in the work. I just get up every day and go to work and keep saying yes to everything. When I stop to think too much about what I’m doing, I’m in big trouble.
I’m usually at my best only after I’ve hit burnout. I find this kind of exhaustion interesting, because I think it purifies the work in many ways—strips it to the essentials and keeps the BS at bay. Some days, I just have to do the steps without thinking too much about what it all means. There’s a beautiful, simple clarity in that. ★