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 9 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Places.
By GAVIN LARSEN
“Places please, places for the top of Sleeping Beauty! Places, we’re at places!”
Everything around me was a fuzz. I was completely engrossed in my head and my body. I was fine-tuning, re-checking, and re-fine-tuning, every single detail: repeating carefully each step I was about to take. I had to feel each step perfectly in my body before the curtain went up, even though I’d already spent dozens upon dozens of hours rehearsing them in the studio, and had known that sense of perfect execution. I needed to feel it NOW, at the moment of truth, prove to my doubting mind that I could do it right this moment.
The other dancers kept a distance from me, giving me an invisible circle of space, with an electric fence no one would cross. At the stage manager’s “places” call, my brain said to do the first step of my variation one more time: from tendu arabesque, I stepped into sousous, perfectly balanced from absolute tip to toe. Plié in 5th position, relevé passé, and— SNAP—
The beaded arm band of my costume, a gloriously embellished white tutu fit for a princess (I was dancing Princess Aurora in Act 3 of The Sleeping Beauty) tore apart as I lifted my arms overhead in what had felt like the perfect execution of a pristine movement. Dozens of tiny, round, clear plastic beads that had been strung on an elastic band around my upper arm scattered, rolling all over the stage.
OH. What … With my laser-like focus broken, my body froze and I just stared blankly at the floor, momentarily unable to think. Milliseconds passed before I looked up and around for someone to tell me what to do, since I felt incapable of switching gears into crisis management. The stage manager— uncannily aware of every situation on her stage and able to react with trigger-like speed— leapt into action.
Three broom-wielding stagehands magically appeared, swiftly and efficiently corralling every last bead into dustbins. Even one lone invisible rolling object under the dancers’ feet would be disastrous, and dangerous.
“HOLDING, we’re holding for three minutes, curtain holding for three…” the stage manager commanded into her headset. “Dancers, CLEAR THE STAGE! Clear!”
All I could do was step aside. Best thing to do. Step away, watch, don’t think about it, put it aside… Wardrobe seamstresses (also appearing instantly out of thin air) were snipping the remaining threads from my tutu and cutting off the other arm band so my classical costume would not be asymmetrical. They murmured reassuring coos in their motherly way as they fussed about me, re-creating the bubble of self-focus that had just been shattered by a tiny thread.
There was no time, now, to finish my final preparations. The audience was already antsy at this unexplained delay. The shuffle and rumble of two thousand bodies shifting in their seats and flipping through their programs, usually muted with reverent anticipation, was getting loud.
The conductor had already gone down to the orchestra pit. I, along with the rest of the 20-odd dancers in the cast, had crowded into the wings while the stagehands worked— I prayed they’d found every bead. Squished as we were into the tight quarters of the upstage right wing space, the circumference of my stiff, regal tutu kept the others at arms’ length. Its edges formed a cylindrical buffer zone, the border of my small world. My senses were dull to the other dancers’ chatter and movement in the wings.
The overture punctured the fuzzy hum around me, pushing me into countdown mode as precise as a NASA takeoff, though without the option to abort mission. I realized that in the chaos, my partner and I had not wished each other good luck.
As if to make up for the fast-forward speed of the pre-curtain frenzy, the conductor drew out Tchaikovsky’s sublime, crystalline, regal-yet-warm adagio in slow motion. My Prince and I stretched each movement further than we ever had, milked it for all it was worth, and drank in every note. We had one performance only, and did the conductor know that? Was he slowing it down for us, to make it last, let us savor each delicious drop? My arms felt freer than ever before, thanks to the release of those scratchy arm bands, and I triumphantly concluded my solo with the glee befitting a princess who slept for years until her prince arrived to kiss her awake. A dancer— a woman— casting off her chains for her one performance of an iconic, unspeakably delicious role.
TOMORROW: The Drive Home. “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.”
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.