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 7 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Orange.
By GAVIN LARSEN
I am clad entirely in orange. From my neck to my ankles and out to my wrists, I am orange. On my feet are little white anklet socks with sticky non-slip pads on the bottoms. I am about to go onstage to perform in a ballet by the great choreographer William Forsythe, and I am mortified.
I hide. For as long as possible, I stay alone in my dressing room. When the stage manager’s “PLACES, PLEASE!” bellows through the loudspeaker, I scurry down a flight of slippery concrete stairs and take cover in the darkness of backstage, where, in the last seconds before the curtain goes up, the work lights have been killed.
I have company, though they are not all are as bashful as I am, or they cover it with bravado. Twenty-some-odd orange people have assembled onstage, where the jokesters flaunt their Creamsicle costumes as if to prove their superiority over this indignity. We’re an asexual bunch, a classless mob, and— almost— lawless. Men and women are exactly the same. The braggarts, the machos, the petite ladies, the newbies and the seniors, we’re all glommed together for effect. The sight of the coolest, most unflappable guys in the company swaggering around in pumpkin orange suits and little white socks is hilarious— ridiculous!— enough to shake me out of my funk, but I still want to cover my behind. The snarkiest fellow of all stands right in front of me in our opening formation, a huge V shape that takes up the entire stage. He keeps sarcastic comments and rude jokes coming, under his breath, every time I’m in earshot.
This ballet is controlled anarchy. We appear, to the audience, to be moving in preordained choreographic patterns, but much of what we do is a sort of structured improvisation. We have a leader. She is the woman, very small, standing with her back to the audience, smack on center, as far downstage as possible without falling backwards into the orchestra pit. She is not one of us— she is not in orange, but instead is as fully contrasted as can be. Muddy gray paint covers every inch of her body, including her face and hair and fingernails. A leotard, also covered in the drabbest dark grayish brown paint, is all she wears. She is barefoot.
This Muddy Woman is, discreetly, giving us cues, and clues. She signals us with sharp, semaphore-like arm movements, and we have to immediately mimic her with no discernible delay. She continues in whatever pattern she wants, as long as she wants, until her “end” cue sends us— the orange mob— running as fast and un-balletically as we can to a new formation. We’re not dancers. We are, literally, human scenery, and at certain times, percussion. We’ve been instructed to run without a care for grace or lightness, to pound our feet into the floor and hurtle ourselves through space (thus the non-slip pads on our socks). The wings have been lifted up to the flies of the theater, out of the audience’s view, so the stage appears endless, an infinity pool. There is no back, no sides, no ceiling. As we race from edge to edge of the vast space making diagonals, Xs, Vs, going from shapeless clumps to sardine-tight lines, flopping on our stomachs and then jumping up into Marine formation, the principals are dancing amongst us. Their choreography is the antithesis of ours. It’s en pointe, tightly wound and even more tightly stretched, stressful and wiry and taut, highly technical. The principals disappear from time to time, melting into our mass as we swallow them up in a swarm. The lighting is dark and shadowy, ominous, and our orange-ness pops out startlingly.
The Muddy Woman moves with us, or ahead of us, running from spot to spot, but she must always be visible to every orange person on stage. When we form a gigantic box rimming the stage, no one may turn their head to see her. Noses straight ahead, eyes peeking to the side, we copy the movements as seen from a 90-degree angle, mentally translating them to our own bodies with insane speed. Those facing her have the easy job of being her mirror image. The Muddy Woman begins to move faster— though in rehearsals, we pleaded with her not to. Furiously trying to keep up, groans of frustration and nervous giggles start to be heard all around, but the recorded music is so loud it more than covers our eruptions. Just as we become frantic and hover on the edge of falling too far behind, revealing our individuality, the Muddy Woman signals us to halt and regroup. At one point, she steps out of the way for the “Sprint-Race”: at a razor-straight starting line, we’re crammed, shoulders overlapping shoulders, along one side of the stage, from front to back, too many of us to comfortably fit. As the violin solo reaches a specific high note, each of us silently begins chanting a rhythmic recitation of the months of the year. January…February…March…April… When the month of your birthday is reached, you’re off— tearing as fast as you can to the finish line on the opposite side of the stage, where the earlier birthdays with their headstart advantage have already won.
There’s more shape-shifting, then, including a spell of lying flat on our backs staring straight up into the flies. We lie in two staggered rows, bodies roughly aligned chessboard style, our heads pointing downstage so the audience sees only the tops of our heads. Our arms become visible, too, because now we get to pick and choose our own favorite gestures from the Muddy Woman’s vocabulary, doing as many or as few as we like, fast or slow or not at all (a few mavericks lie motionless, adding empty space to the collage we’re making). Arms that are in motion must stay perpendicular to our bodies, and to the floor, so the effect is of random, spiky spears jabbing the air. Every move has to be staccato and angular; our hands must stay perfectly flat, with fingers glued together like spatulas. Or knives. I’m beginning to enjoy the freedom of being one in a herd, and the bravery of being anonymous.
By the end, our volume overwhelms everything. We’re released from the Muddy Woman’s spontaneous commands and take over control of the stage. There are no traffic patterns anymore as each of us carves our own road around and around, zig-zagging or not, any which way and at any speed we choose. Nearly fifty pairs of arms manically chop and slice as we stride about; there are near-misses and some full-on collisions. Each orange person is their own master now. We rule together, but alone, isolated without words— and invisible in front of 2,000 people.
My timidity returns the moment the curtain falls. I am just another body, clad all in orange.
TOMORROW: The Human Monolith. “Some people sweat a lot more than others, and even those who are not heavy sweaters begin to pour and drip as soon as extreme exertion is finished and they are slowly, stealthily, creeping and crawling and oozing their way across the stage to become part of a huge, undulating, slimy mass of dancers twister-ing themselves into the towering pile of limbs we called the Human Monolith.”
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.