How It's Done: Becoming Gamzatti

Kelly Myernick relishes the bad-girl role.
Published in the October/November 2012 issue.

Kelly Myernick: "Gamzatti gets what she wants." Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Kelly Myernick’s Gamzatti has a vivacity all her own. In Stanton Welch’s Bollywood-inspired remake of La Bayadère, this fiery Houston Ballet first soloist detonates across the stage as the jealous princess out for revenge. Hers is the bad girl who manages to get the audience on her side. Sure, she poisons people with snakes. But she does it with sultry conviction.

Myernick used to run home from school every day to watch a tape of The Royal Ballet’s Darcey Bussell dancing Gamzatti. “What I love about Gamzatti is that, unlike so many classical female characters, she is not waifish or fragile,” says Myernick. “She is commanding, sensual and proud. She is also very spoiled.” Myernick dove headfirst into the vintage melodrama of La Bayadère when Welch premiered his version in 2010. His take on the classic goes for broke—everything is big and over the top, from live snakes onstage to a crumbling temple at the end. He kept Petipa’s choreography for Gamzatti’s variation intact, but instead of a tutu, Gamzatti dons a sexy Middle Eastern genie-in-a-bottle inspired costume. “The pants really make a difference,” Myernick says. “I had to find ‘my walk’ with them. I use the image of a snake; I slink instead of step.”
Don’t Hold Back
For Myernick, the hardest part of the solo is the stamina required to pull it off. “It’s more like a men’s variation, with all those big jumps and turns,” says Myernick. “I used to run it every day to get my aerobic capacity where it needed to be.” At first, she tried to conserve energy when performing, but the approach backfired. “I became preoccupied with exhaustion,” she says. “It’s better just to fly through it, fully executing each movement.”

Turning in a Jumping Solo
The early series of attitude turns that land in arabesque presents one of the variation’s biggest technical challenges. “It takes some serious musicality to make them look seamless,” says Myernick. She found that adjusting her rhythm in the turns allows her body to move through the line more naturally. “I slow my plié for the preparation into the turn and then quicken my spot during it,” she says. “Also, to make the character feel a little more luxurious, I really use my back and épaulement.”

All the jumping in the solo makes the turns especially difficult. “Jumping and turning require different types of energy,” Myernick explains. To transition into the solo’s turns, she slows down her momentum in order to find her center and focus. “There’s an en dedans pirouette near the end of the variation that I always struggle to complete when I’m tired. I have to make sure I give myself enough time beforehand to relax into a good plié.”

Victim or Villain?

Myernick says her interpretation of Gamzatti continues to evolve. “One of the difficulties in developing Gamzatti was that everyone I discussed her character with seemed to have different ideas about how she should be played,” recalls Myernick. “Is she initially a victim who eventually gets overcome by jealousy, or is she really just a villain?”

That ambiguity appeals to Myernick; she appreciates the freedom to give her own interpretation. But a few things are clear: “Gamzatti gets what she wants,” she says. “She’s a confident character, with an air of invincibility. I use a broadness in my back and an openness in my chest to convey her regal nature.”

For inspiration, Myernick turned to Marianela Nuñez, one of The Royal Ballet’s current Gamzattis. “I love what she does with her eyes; she really thinks about her face,” she says. “Marianela looks extremely confident and in complete control. It’s so dramatic.” And, after all these years, Bussell continues to be an influence: “She combined power and beauty.”

Give In to the Drama
In this age, La Bayadère has a kind of museum piece glamour. Why fight that? The acting is exaggerated. The emotions are extreme. Myernick intends to let her inner viper loose on Houston during her second time around in the role this winter. “I have the confidence to play her darker now, so I want to go deeper into Gamzatti’s villain quality,” she says. “Jealousy can make women do nasty things. At the end of Stanton’s version, Gamzatti stabs the man who broke her heart. I plan to have more fun with that.”