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 8 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Human Monolith.
By GAVIN LARSEN
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.
This is The Rite of Spring, and the moment of the Human Monolith is perhaps the apex of the ballet in more than a literal sense. Two dozen dancers of all ages, both sexes, and every rank turn themselves, for these few minutes, into primordial slime. We are instructed to “ooze” ourselves from upright stances into prehistoric, one-celled organisms, snaking our way through and on top of and in between each other until we reach an approximate place upon the stage, when certain designated dancers get lifted, some evolve into two-legged creatures, some make it only halfway to standing, and the rest of us remain as a muddy base for the rest. No two people may be in the same position. Limbs stick out of the structure we’re making, always undulating, never becoming motionless, and (important) always remaining in contact with another body in the pile. We are all connected, breathing with life and sweat, heaving. There is a lot of bare skin. The women are in leotards, no tights, and the men are in briefs, no shirts. The puddles of sweat on the stage become treacherous. Like slugs, dancers leave paths of slime behind them.
And there are the giggles. How can you not? Training in the epitome of structure and classicism for decades, pushing oneself to conform to classical shape and line, cramming feet into pointe shoes, and now to achieve the freedom of oozing from mud? The strength of the bond between dancers has never been stronger than when our ranks and hierarchy are made meaningless and we hold onto each other in the monolith, scheming how to make a creepier creation, with one person’s foot in another’s face and one’s leg on another’s rear, holding onto her ankle and breathing into his stomach while she rests her elbow on my back and the guy I danced Sleeping Beauty with lies writhing just under my ribcage.
Somehow it doesn’t feel wrong, though. This is just another part of it, the life upon the stage. Another human experience, and one of the most grounding, real ones I’ve ever had.
On cue, the monolith tumbles down and we emerge from our pre-humanity, evolving into upright creatures as we walk offstage to dance again.
TOMORROW: Places. “Places please, places for the top of Sleeping Beauty! Places, we’re at places!”
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.