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 6 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Into the Night.
By GAVIN LARSEN
By the time I get home tonight after the show, it will be late, my legs will be tired, and I will need protein and sleep as quickly as possible. Waiting for dinner to cook will only make me grumpy, so at 4 in the afternoon, I preheat the oven to 400 and pop in a frozen ricotta-spinach stuffed chicken breast from Trader Joe’s.
I’ll cook it now and reheat it later, or just eat it cold. It smells good … savory and cheesy. I’m pre-chopping some vegetables, too, since who wants to come down from a performance high by slicing carrots? My dinner-making ritual is comforting, familiar, and automatic. I duck in and out of the fridge for ingredients, and my hand reaches for the bottle of wine before I realize what time and day it is. That glass will be much more welcome six hours from now, when I get home and am seeing the performance from the other side.
I lock the apartment door and hover on the landing for a second doing a mental checklist: I’ve got pointe shoes in my bag, a clean leotard to warm up in, sewing kit, trail mix and Clif bar, water bottle, and my tea mug. An umbrella’s in the car for the walk from parking garage to stage door, and my makeup case is still at the theater after last night’s dress rehearsal. A wisp of thought about the performance tonight flickers up from my stomach, and echoes in my head.
I live on the second floor of a duplex, an old Victorian house divided in half. Walking down the wide staircase with its ornate, dark wood bannister, and dated but fancy-looking chandelier, I feel like a 1920s starlet, making her entrance in a ball gown and fur stole. The ground floor vestibule is dim, since the afternoon sun has gotten low, but it’s too early for the lights to come on. The walls are the same dark wood as the staircase. There’s a giant framed mirror over an elegant but tired side table, and a frayed Oriental rug. The porch looks squiggly through the front door’s beveled glass windows. When this house was a single-family residence, paneled pocket doors led into a formal dining room, which is now the ground-floor apartment. I can picture a white-gloved butler parting those doors to welcome dinner guests.
My downstairs neighbor has a piano, but she rarely plays. She confessed to me once that she’s ashamed of not having practiced enough over the years, of having let her technique slip, and didn’t want to become sad at her lost ability if she were to try playing again. But she was a musician once, and a singer, and toured with a band.
As I get to the bottom of the stairs, the faint tinkle of music I heard from the second floor landing becomes stronger, and although I’m nervous about the time, I stop— is it a recording, or is someone playing the piano on the other side of that door? I can’t tell, quite. It sounds old-fashioned, almost like a Victrola record player, but not scratchy. Am I imagining the hesitancy between the notes? The melody has life and breath, but it isn’t polished, either. It sounds frail, delicate, a little tentative, but doesn’t pause as someone practicing might. It makes me think of a sweet old lady, and lace doilies, and a parlor on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I stand there listening, expecting the music to stop, but it goes on. I have to leave— I’m already late— but this moment seems timeless.
The music is Chopin, the very same etude to which I will dance tonight.
TOMORROW: Orange. “I am clad entirely in orange. From my neck to my ankles and out to my wrists, I am orange.”
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.