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American `superkid' in the London dance world

The artistic achievements of New York's young Katherine Healy are dazzling: At age 2 she started ice-skating and at 6 appeared annually for six years in John Curry's ``Superskates'' ice show at Madison Square Garden.

At four years old, she saw Rudolph Nureyev's film ``I Am a Dancer'' and asked if she could take ballet lessons.

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At 9 and 10, she was chosen by George Balanchine to play the leading girl's role in the New York City Ballet production of ``Nutcracker'' at Lincoln Center.

At 12 she was Hollywood-bound, to act in the film ``Six Weeks,'' co-starring with Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore.

At 13 she won a silver medal at the international ballet competitions in Jackson, Miss.

At 14 she became the first American-born ballerina -- and the youngest dancer ever -- to be awarded a gold medal at the famous international ballet competitions in Varna, Bulgaria.

All this -- and Kathy Healy is still only 15.

This past holiday season, she has been taking London by storm: guest performances in the London Festival Ballet's production of ``Nutcracker,'' impressing veteran London critics, and being interviewed on BBC television.

How has this American ``superkid'' crammed so much success into so short a time? And how has the adulation affected her?

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We met in the artistes' cafeteria at the Royal Festival Hall here one recent morning after her daily ballet class with the company. Kathy, a petite, wispy-haired, fresh-faced figure in pink nylon sweat pants and leg warmers, nibbled on a Granny Smith apple as she chatted about herself in an unaffected manner with schoolgirl giggles.

``With my performances here,'' she said, ``I'll be a week late going back to school in Brooklyn Heights . . . I'm in my next-to-last year, with exams in May . . . my favorite subjects are history, Latin, Chinese, and French literature.''

Chinese? ``Yes, two years of it so far . . . it's fascinating.''

Hardly the usual image of a ballerina.

She tries to miss as little school as possible, ``but they are very understanding about giving me assignments, which I mail back,'' she added. ``Nor do I have to take physical education at school,'' she laughed. ``They realize that I get enough exercise as it is!''

She has had top teachers: David Howard (also coach for Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova), Vera Nemtchinova (ex-Diaghilev ballerina), and now Norbert Vesak and Robert Blankshine.

Kathy is an only child, and her parents have nurtured and shaped her special talents. They regularly took her to watch the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet. Afterward she would go backstage to meet stars. She counts Nureyev, Kirkland, and Mikhail Baryshnikov among her friends.

For five years she attended the Balanchine School of American Ballet on Manhattan and has toured with former Bolshoi dancers Leonid and Valentina Kozlov and starred in European dance festivals.

What qualities have distinguished her? And where does she go from here?

There is no doubt that she has the ``something extra'' needed to be a top dancer. Even at this early age she is demonstrating the bravura, confidence, and tight technique of the kind required for time-honored classics, yet at the same time a sweet innocency and girlish charm that older ballerinas often strive for.

Yet her relative inexperience can prove a problem at times when she dances with a partner.

``She is a great dancer,'' one well-known male ballet star told me admiringly; ``but her youth means that she still goes by the textbook -- she performs everything exactly, but she does not yet have that inner feeling that comes with maturity. She can't express the great emotions that come only when you have danced the role for years -- and she doesn't adapt her dancing for her partner. He must be where she is at all times, and there is no improvising.''

This summer -- she will have turned 16 -- she is off to Moscow to try for a gold medal in the Soviet year of international ballet ``Olympics,'' held every four years. Her partner will be Patrick Armand, a young quicksilver French dancer from the Nancy Ballet Theatre Franais who partnered her during her recent London season.

There in Moscow she will face her toughest critics. It is a competition in which, traditionally, the Soviets take most of the medals but where young, new ballerinas are not unknown, especially since regular schooling and ballet training go hand in hand at the many state choreography schools from which Soviet entrants will come.

And Katherine will be reminded, too, that at the last Moscow competitions, another young American ballerina walked -- or rather, floated -- off with a gold medal. Amanda McKerrow performed such a beautifully lyrical and light excerpt from ``Les Sylphides'' that she captured the hearts of an audience usually known for its love of bravura.

Katherine has chosen the pas de deux from ``Corsaire'' and ``Giselle'' for the competition. ``I shall be working on them every day for the next five months,'' she told me.

``Corsaire'' will prove no problem -- her technique and thrilled-to-be-dancing expression will shine. But studying her ``Nutcracker'' pas de deux, I wondered how she would fare in ``Giselle.'' Its second act requires an inner calm that envelops with frailty the constantly flowing movement as it uses every phrase of the music.

Arms are a vital, critical focal point for the Soviet onlooker, and Katherine needs to watch that her arm and hand do not move in two parts, as observed in ``Nutcracker,'' but is one long, fluid, unending action.

Having attended the last two Moscow competitions, I know the stress placed on ``plasticity.'' Indeed, the first prizewinner in last spring's All Unions Soviet competition, Natalya Chekhovskaya, was praised by an Izvestia report for her ``very lyrical and very spiritual feeling of musicality to which we paid attention.''

However she fares, Katherine Healy, with her simple, untainted joy, will prove a charming and talented young ambassador for United States dance.

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