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.
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.
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.
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.
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
8: The Human Monolith
10: The Drive Home
12: The Time I Taught Someone Something
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.