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 10 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Drive Home.
By GAVIN LARSEN
The drive home every night is short, for which I am grateful. I’m tired, tired, tired, and hungry. It’s late, and my body, wrung out like a washcloth from exertion, needs good sleep to recover for tomorrow. I have to put ice on my hip, soak my feet in a bucket of cold water, massage the knots out of my legs, and stretch my back so it won’t spasm in the middle of the night.
But at the same time, I wish the drive were longer, just a little bit. Arriving home means food, blessed rest, and sagging into my forgiving, fuzzy sweatpants, but it also means a return to real life. The time that I spend en route between the theater and home is all my own, a time when I am relieved of the pressure and anxiety of tonight’s performance, but don’t yet have to think about tomorrow’s. I can sit with the satisfaction of having worked and danced hard (no matter how well or not-so-well the performance went) and just feel the effects in my muscles, before I have to inevitably let it fade away. Dance is impermanent, which I find to be a tragic blessing.
I’ve often thought about what happens in the audience after a show is over. The performance must evaporate so quickly for them. They have no buffer between the magic world of theater they’ve been in for the past two hours and their own return to normalcy. The lights come up, they creakily stand, shuffle about finding scarves and programs and inch their way out of the theater in a herd to find the car, get out of the garage, maybe go out for a drink. Maybe a few passing comments are made about the piece they just watched, but what they have witnessed represents only a tiny fraction of my life’s work and is designed to appear effortless.
On MY side of the curtain, things also change quickly, but since we’re all performers (all of us back there, even the techies, are “show trash”), the perfume of the performance lingers. The lights come up suddenly backstage, too, but it’s almost a relief, a reassurance— it’s ok to have just bared your soul in front of all those people, don’t worry, we’re just pretending, it’s the theater, we’re all friends here. We congratulate each other on work well done, commiserate about the trouble spots, rehash everything, laugh about it now that the pressure is off. Up in my dressing room (got to get my costume off right away so the wardrobe people can go home), I slowly sink into a chair. After getting out of costume (either peeling myself out of a unitard or getting unhooked from a tutu): pointe shoes off. Toe tape removal is frustratingly difficult and I roughly pull and tear at it. Finally my toes are free and I can feel them again. I carefully tug off my fake eyelashes, swipe makeup remover over my face, get wrapped up in my big towel and head to the blessed shower… to discover that the hot water is out again in this old, persnickety theater. It doesn’t really matter. I need cold water on my feet, which are now starting to burn, and it’s probably good for the rest of my body too.
It’s often been said that performing is like a drug, and I believe it. It’s addictive and certain personality types are more susceptible to its lure than others. It also leaves the “user” in a highly charged and somewhat vulnerable state of mind. It’s best if the descent from that high place is gradual, so that the distance of the drop doesn’t feel quite so drastic. The arc of emotions follows the physical transportation from stage to dressing room, to opening the backstage door, stepping outside and breathing fresh air. I think that’s why I cherish my drive home so much. It allows me to soften my landing, like putting out a parachute so I can ride down slowly, gradually, looking upwards at the sky as my feet come closer to the ground.
Sometimes, on my drive, the descent feels glorious and jubilant, perhaps after a wildly successful premiere, or a repeat performance of a familiar ballet when I finally nailed the parts that had always been troublesome. On those drives, I might blast some crazy ABBA song and open all the windows to feel like I’m on top of the world. Other times it’s a little bleak, if I’m disappointed with how I just danced and wish I could erase it and try again. And often, it’s just neutral. Just another show, neither particularly good nor bad, just another day on the job. Satisfying, but the “drug” doesn’t mask much then. I just turn on NPR and listen to whatever weird late-night show is on. Strangely, an image comes into my mind of a lone security guard on the overnight shift somewhere, who perhaps is also hearing the same thing.
As I get close to home, First Avenue splits. The jog to the right would take me uphill, away from the neighborhood and around the city. Going to the left, the road curves down under Naito Parkway and snakes around to my front door. If I get caught at the red light just before this choice, I sit there thinking about the constant plainness of the activity that has gone on at this intersection while I was at the theater. Idling there, waiting for the light to change, I feel myself fitting back into the fabric of the city. The light changes, I go through it, take the road to the left, fold up my parachute, and go home.
TOMORROW: Quivering. “From the audience she looks rock-solid, balancing on pointe in arabesque after a series of precariously difficult one-armed promenades with her partner. But from the wings, just a few feet away, we see the edges of her tutu quivering.”
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.