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 11 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Quivering.
By GAVIN LARSEN
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.
The effect of vulnerability is both true and misleading, since her strength is real, but the intensity of her effort is too. Every single fiber of every muscle in her body is engaged—not stiffly rigid, but called into play with calculated, modulated precision. Up close, a nearby watcher can see the constant recalibration required to maintain her arabesque, and even lift it higher and higher when human nature would tell it to droop. The determination reverberates to the edges of tulle spanning out from the basque of her regal tutu.
Her effort has been overtaken by some power she did not have when she woke up that morning. Yes, the physicality of her poses and movements is human. They are HER legs, arms, torso, neck, fingertips. But the surge of adrenaline that fuels them comes from somewhere else. She’s calculating every split-second maneuver, but there is also an unseen manipulator—an internal god, maybe?—who guides her and powers her to the end.
It’s electrifying for both dancer and audience— when the promenade is at its ultimate climax, as she releases her partner’s hand for an impossibly long balance alone, on one pointe, leg at a full 90 degree arabesque— some man from the back of the house ROARS, and the rest of the crowd erupts in turn — she is literally startled, shocked and stunned by a jolt of realization: There are people out there! And, They like what I just did?
But it’s not over— there is a lift, a pirouette, a toss in the air and a fish dive to finish, the audience’s thunder nearly drowning out the music. As her partner lifts her with compassionate strength (he’s on fire from the response as well), gently placing her on one pointe in a piqué arabesque and sweeping her into their agreed-upon pose for their bow, she gives him a secret “oh my God” look. (Recovering from the lift brings them into a momentary embrace, their faces inches apart, giving them a moment of privacy in front of 1,000 people). They move to center stage with a shared glee, disbelief, and gratitude. They bow for each other more than for the audience.
And then, as she exits stage left, he walks upstage alone, takes a deep, deep breath—and then another— to begin his coda. It’s not over.
TOMORROW, THE FINALE: The Time I Taught Someone Something. “I have just spent an hour and a half leading thirteen women and two men in a classical ballet class, working them through a series of dance exercises that have been practiced all over the world for centuries.”
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.