Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992

In the fifth episode of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen leaves school behind and begins her professional career – and the lessons just keep coming

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Part 5 of “Everyday Ballerina”: In the summer of 1992, Larsen travels cross-country from New York to Seattle to begin her professional dancing career with Pacific Northwest Ballet.

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By GAVIN LARSEN 

In the summer of 1992, I thought I had been duped.

I was naive, even for a 17-year-old. But as it became clear that I had failed to notice a huge, crucial, completely obvious basic fact about being a dancer, I was rocked absolutely to the core. I’d been oblivious to something everyone else got but didn’t bother to tell me about, because it was so commonly understood. I was terrified. And I feared I just might have made a terrible mistake.

It was as if, after desperately wanting and hoping to be granted membership into a special club, one whose members I idolized and that was my ticket to my dreamed-of life of a dancer, I had finally been allowed to join— but once I was inside, the expectations and assumptions and responsibilities were completely unlike anything I had envisioned. They were dauntingly difficult, and stunningly painful. There was no rule book, and nothing was explained. The price of membership in this Professional Dancer Club was a test of toughness, adaptability, and stoicism. It required a worldly-wise savvy of which I had not one iota. The other members were welcoming enough, even accepting, but their blasé air of capable professionalism was intimidating. I was much too embarrassed to ask a question that might reveal my shocking lack of preparation— my reflexive instinct was that I should hide my struggle or I would be branded as irresponsible and inadequate, not up to the task. I was in completely over my head.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

What scared me most during that summer of ’92 was a startling feeling that I should have known what this was going to be like— I should have known what to expect when I graduated from ballet school into the life of a professional dancer. I should have known that I would be in pointe shoes for eight hours a day— and my feet should have been able to handle it. I should have been able to learn the choreography for three different ballets, and understudy three other dancers’ roles, and be able to step in without warning to any of the other dancers’ positions whether or not I’d learned them. But I hadn’t even known how long the rehearsal days would be, and I definitely did not imagine they would leave me feeling desperate from pain and fatigue.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

Ambitious theater and music performance reveals an inspired composer, but an uninspired story

by JEFF WINSLOW and BRETT CAMPBELL

Editor’s note: Chamber Music Northwest’s new production,  “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld,” received its premiere at this summer’s festival before going on tour. ArtsWatch sent two writers to cover it, one from a musical perspective, the other a theatrical one. They came away with different impressions.

Even at the height of his fame, Johannes Brahms was an unusually private person. He rarely made public statements aside from his music, and towards the end of his life he burned piles of letters his family and closest friends had sent him over the years, even asking for his own letters back. (This was long before copiers, let alone e-mail.) In contrast, his rival, composer and dramatist Richard Wagner, left a torrent of text about his life and ideas, including some the world could have happily done without. Still, Brahms’s life had its portentous if not operatic moments.

The Dover Quartet joined actor Jack Gilpin, clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet joined clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

One moment music lovers can be especially grateful for was his meeting with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1891, shortly after the composer had decided to retire. He was so taken with Mühlfeld’s artistry that he began calling him Miss Clarinet (Fräulein Klarinette), possibly in wistful memory of times spent squiring various attractive young female singers around Viennese society. That artistry got Brahms composing again, not only writing four meaty chamber works featuring clarinet, but also no fewer than 20 piano solo works, many that would become audience favorites.

No car chases or vampires in sight, but this story of creative renewal is pretty dramatic as classical composers’ lives go, and it was probably irresistible to David Shifrin, who is not only Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director but also an internationally renowned clarinetist. CMNW teamed with playwright Harry Clark, actor Jack Gilpin, and director Troy Hollar to create a cross between a concert and a play, a one-man show with live music. As a composer who’s been in awe of Brahms for 40 years, I found it fascinating, although I naturally focused much more on its music than its modest drama.

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Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

In the third of twelve daily episodes, Gavin Larsen recalls the hopes and fears of a beginner, and the terrors of an old Greek teacher in New York

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life.  Part 3 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

Now that she knew which studio to go into, the 8-year-old did return the following week, and the one after, and even more after that. As these weeks passed, she began to slowly gain, if not real confidence, a familiarity with how things worked. She followed along. She watched, and copied, but just when she started to think she knew everything she and the other students would be told to do during class, the teacher called for a step or movement that was foreign. As before, momentary panic would strike, and that fear of looking stupid. She was afraid no one remembered that she was the girl who was supposed to be given leeway, who was still catching up. She wanted to wear a sign reminding everyone she was new.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Did she think of her new-ness as a defense— a justification for any mistake she might make? Was it becoming part of her psyche, her identity? A shield, so that she could fail without fear of shame? But the curse of being a good faker is that people begin to think you’re for real, and then they expect things.

She was trying, and listening, hard, very hard. Every instruction that was given she multiplied by at least two or three. A straight knee had to be very, very straight. Shoulders down meant really, really down. “Point your toes” meant make your foot as strong as a dagger. “Stomach in” meant belly button touching backbone.

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Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old

In part two of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen remembers the beginning of her dance life, lost in the confusion of a New York studio

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. “Everyday Ballerina,” Part 2: The 8-Year-Old.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

The noise and rushing current of Broadway are muted instantly as the old wooden door thuds shut, its glass window rattling once. Inside, everything is gray-scale, muted, dusty, and chilly. A wide wooden staircase leads straight up, enormously high and steep. At the top, far above real life and through a door to the right: A hallway, long wooden benches, and, on the bare floor, a big fluffy white dog acting as foot rest and greeter. The air is hazy and musty, carrying a cold, sweaty, stale smell, possibly left over from the generations of dancers before. Every room is a cavern. Rows of ancient metal lockers fill a dressing room that is unlit, unkempt, uncleaned–and unused? Studios with ceilings two stories high are so big their corners disappear into shadows, empty and forgotten. Rosin dust covers everything. Young children, talking excitedly, bring life to this museum that is the space itself. Their purple leotards are the only color in this movie.

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To an 8-year-old, especially one there for the first time, the New York School of Ballet was confusing. There were certainly a lot of young children crowded into the big lobby hallway who looked like they were there for ballet class, but then there were all these adults around— clearly dancers, real ones— who looked as old as parents (though they were, probably, late teenagers).

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

The procedures and expectations were confusing, too, especially to a timid, play-by-the-rules little girl, self-conscious, and terrified of doing something wrong. The laid-back attitude of the friendly (and gorgeously tall and glamorous) woman behind the front desk made it all more stressful, not less— was the handwritten ledger book an attendance sheet? If each page was a class, where was the 8-year-old’s name? Why did the glamorous woman say it didn’t matter and to go in anyway?

Go in? Most confusing of all was where to go and what to do. Nobody pointed a new student to the right studio. Wanting to get away from the crowd of loud grown-ups milling about by the entrance, she wandered down a long hall and found an almost-hidden studio that felt the safest— the most private, way down there almost out the back door. She could slip in unnoticed and blend in with the bunch of kids already in there. Just pretend to know where you belong.

Edgar Degas), "The Dance Lesson," c. 1879, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edgar Degas, “The Dance Lesson,” c. 1879, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Pretending soon became everything. Pretend to know where to stand at the barre— everyone else knew. A woman, the teacher, strolled in with coffee cup in hand, her casualness only adding anxiety. Class started, suddenly, without preface or introduction, or recognition of the terrified dormouse squeezed into line of confident kids. Pretend to know what the words mean, what the steps are; copy the girl on either side, mimic and shadow whatever she does. Play follow-along, but never think of speaking up— don’t ask a question; they’ll know you made a mistake— just stay quiet and hope no one notices. Blend in so you won’t stand out; even though, as usual, trying to blend in makes you noticeable.

No one’s being mean, so why so intimidated? Why so scared? Scared of what? Scared of being wrong, even if only because of others’ harmless shortcomings or benign oversights.

Class is over. How old are you? “Eight,” the dormouse squeaked. Aha—I think youre in the wrong class— have you ever taken ballet before? No? Oh, no wonder! But you know, its fine— you kept up so well, and youll catch up to everyone else quickly. Just stay here in this class, and come again next week.

What? I kept up well? How is that possible? How can I catch up to the middle when I don’t even know the beginning?

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So it began. A lifetime—a ballet-lifetime— started off without a beginning, but with a mandate to pretend that there was one. Entering the race two laps past the starting line, hoping no one would notice.

 Could it be done?

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TOMORROW: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2. “Now that she knew which studio to go into, the 8-year-old did return the following week, and the one after, and even more after that.”

PREVIOUSLY:

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

 

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Born and raised in New York City, Gavin Larsen has been immersed in ballet’s “bizarrely intuitive system” since she was 8 years old and began to study in the same studios where George Balanchine had created some of his finest ballets. She moved on to the School of American Ballet, and a long career performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since retiring from the stage in 2010, she has taught and written extensively for Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Pointe, Oregon ArtsWatch, The Threepenny Review, the literary journal KYSO Flash, and elsewhere.

 

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

In the first of a twelve-part daily series, former ballerina Gavin Larsen takes us behind the curtain and inside the world of dancers and dance

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Part 1 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Curtain Speech.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

It seems that most performances begin, these days, with a speech. Before you— the audience— are allowed to slip away from your life outside the theater and into a world of music and dance, you must be spoken to. Welcomed, thanked for coming, briefed on what you’re about to see, and encouraged to thank those people or entities that have given more than you have in order to make this show possible.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Sometimes these speeches are funny, mercifully brief, and successful in making you feel more personally connected, if not to the artists onstage, at least to the visionary who’s presenting them. So here, I will try to be all three of those things.

Hello, and welcome. Thank you for coming to Oregon ArtsWatch and clicking on this link. I’m impressed that you’re here, because you have (as of yet) no idea what you signed up to read! I hope to hold your attention by telling what might be a long story in several small chunks, and by throwing them at you from every which way.

I was a ballet dancer. I grew up, was infatuated with ballet, and took lots and lots of lessons. And since nothing else ever came along that was more interesting, I just kept doing it. Companies and choreographers hired me to dance for them; I followed jobs from city to city. I had a lot of experiences, rubbed shoulders with a Central Casting-worthy roster of “types”, had successes and disappointments, embarrassing moments, and ones I was proud of. Worked hard, relaxed some, injured various body parts over and over, loved what I did— but also dreaded it more often than you’d think. Basically, I lived the life of any, and every, professional ballet dancer. The specifics of each dancer’s story differ, of course, and the high points and low ones vary in their extremes, but at the core, we are all the same. We all know what makes each other tick.

Gavin Larsen in Val Caniparoli's "Lamberena" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen in Val Caniparoli’s “Lamberena” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Despite the variance in detail that defines each dancer’s individual path, no matter where or when we’ve lived our dancer-lives, we share experiences. We’ve all gone through the bizarrely intuitive system of physical training, learned the same steps, made the same discoveries about our bodies. Felt the transformation from pedestrian to dancer and the exhilaration of freedom of movement. We all crave range of motion, precision, speed, and grace— with an underlying, unshakable strength of body and will.

And through our shared understanding of what we all live for, we ballet dancers have a bond as invisibly tight as the overworked glute medius that my physical therapist spent so many hours digging his thumbs into.

Over the next twelve days, I would like to invite you to journey with this “Everywoman Ballerina.” The “Everyday Ballerina,” perhaps. She whose identity is inseparable from her work, and therefore whose daily life includes stretching as routinely as yours includes brushing your teeth. I’d like to take you inside her skin and her pointe shoes, and bring you onstage with her. Sometimes, you might watch her from a distance, but you’ll also get to rehearse with her. I mean, really rehearse: you’ll see the studio through her eyes, and listen to her brain rapid-firing instructions step by step.

The Everywoman Ballerina wasn’t born that way; she grew. So you’ll watch as she stumbles into the wrong class as a child but is too terrified to say anything. Luckily, she was too scared by a tyrannical Greek teacher to quit— she just tried harder to do what he demanded.

Most performances begin at the beginning, but this one will start near the end. So please, read on, into the ordinary miracle that it means to be an Everyday Ballerina.

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COMING UP DAILY FOR THE NEXT ELEVEN DAYS: 

  

2:         The New York School of Ballet (part 1)

3:         The New York School of Ballet (part 2)

4:         The New York School of Ballet (part 3)

5:         The Summer of 1992

6:         Into the Night

7:         Orange

8:         The Human Monolith

9:         Places

10:       The Drive Home

11:       Quivering

12:       The Time I Taught Someone Something

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Born and raised in New York City, Gavin Larsen has been immersed in ballet’s “bizarrely intuitive system” since she was 8 years old and began to study in the same studios where George Balanchine had created some of his finest ballets. She moved on to the School of American Ballet, and a long career performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since retiring from the stage in 2010, she has taught and written extensively for Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Pointe, Oregon ArtsWatch, The Threepenny Review, the literary journal KYSO Flash, and elsewhere.

Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

Riveting Chamber Music Northwest performances showcase an exemplary 21st century composer

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.

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Berwick Chorus review: Dynamic tension

Oregon Bach Festival performance of Frank Martin's 20th century classic reflects composer's spiritual conflict

by DANIEL HEILA

I am surprised by the number of musical settings of the Catholic Mass that have been written by twentieth-century composers who have reason to be apostate: Igor Stravinsky with his long-suffering wife back in Russia and his life-long mistress at his side, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison with their devoted same-sex relationships, Leonard Bernstein’s life of pop fame and decadence.

I am neither Catholic nor Christian. But I can see (and hear) the tidal influence that this faith can have on artists: piety and devotion at one time, decadent behavior, or “anti-Christian” lifestyle at another. Perhaps that psychological dissonance is what drove these artists to excel, to lsesh themselves to great achievement: a dynamic tension that arises from simultaneously attempting to transcend and to dissolve into a Faith.

Frank Martin, a devout Christian and son of a Calvinist minister, wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir between the years 1922 and 1926; the last movement was not finished till four years after the first four were composed. Martin was loath to have the work performed and it did not have its premier until 40 years later. The composer explained that it was “a matter entirely between God and myself.” This suggests the best behavior of Tolstoy’s beloved Father Sergius, who strived to live for God without living for the praise of others. The tidal pull of Martin’s faith against the good graces of his audience must have played a part in both the suppression of the piece and its great beauty.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

However, since its premier, the Swiss composer’s work—performed in Portland earlier this year and at the Oregon Bach Festival last month—has achieved great success and critical acclaim. I wonder how that settled with Martin. Did he struggle with the same doubts that Father Sergius did, when the poor hermit realized that, indeed, he “lived for men on the pretext of living for God.” I think that Martin did. I think that he struggled with the beauty he unleashed with his piece (its torn-paper sonic climaxes), wondering whether the beauty served the aesthetic needs of his audience or the ascetic purpose of worship. After leaving the Agnus Dei unfinished for several years, he chose to end the mass with a self-effacing, humbling study in the coming together of estranged elements. 

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