oregon ballet theatre

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

In the first of a twelve-part daily series, former ballerina Gavin Larsen takes us behind the curtain and inside the world of dancers and dance

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 1 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Curtain Speech.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

It seems that most performances begin, these days, with a speech. Before you— the audience— are allowed to slip away from your life outside the theater and into a world of music and dance, you must be spoken to. Welcomed, thanked for coming, briefed on what you’re about to see, and encouraged to thank those people or entities that have given more than you have in order to make this show possible.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Sometimes these speeches are funny, mercifully brief, and successful in making you feel more personally connected, if not to the artists onstage, at least to the visionary who’s presenting them. So here, I will try to be all three of those things.

Hello, and welcome. Thank you for coming to Oregon ArtsWatch and clicking on this link. I’m impressed that you’re here, because you have (as of yet) no idea what you signed up to read! I hope to hold your attention by telling what might be a long story in several small chunks, and by throwing them at you from every which way.

I was a ballet dancer. I grew up, was infatuated with ballet, and took lots and lots of lessons. And since nothing else ever came along that was more interesting, I just kept doing it. Companies and choreographers hired me to dance for them; I followed jobs from city to city. I had a lot of experiences, rubbed shoulders with a Central Casting-worthy roster of “types”, had successes and disappointments, embarrassing moments, and ones I was proud of. Worked hard, relaxed some, injured various body parts over and over, loved what I did— but also dreaded it more often than you’d think. Basically, I lived the life of any, and every, professional ballet dancer. The specifics of each dancer’s story differ, of course, and the high points and low ones vary in their extremes, but at the core, we are all the same. We all know what makes each other tick.

Gavin Larsen in Val Caniparoli's "Lamberena" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen in Val Caniparoli’s “Lamberena” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Despite the variance in detail that defines each dancer’s individual path, no matter where or when we’ve lived our dancer-lives, we share experiences. We’ve all gone through the bizarrely intuitive system of physical training, learned the same steps, made the same discoveries about our bodies. Felt the transformation from pedestrian to dancer and the exhilaration of freedom of movement. We all crave range of motion, precision, speed, and grace— with an underlying, unshakable strength of body and will.

And through our shared understanding of what we all live for, we ballet dancers have a bond as invisibly tight as the overworked glute medius that my physical therapist spent so many hours digging his thumbs into.

Over the next twelve days, I would like to invite you to journey with this “Everywoman Ballerina.” The “Everyday Ballerina,” perhaps. She whose identity is inseparable from her work, and therefore whose daily life includes stretching as routinely as yours includes brushing your teeth. I’d like to take you inside her skin and her pointe shoes, and bring you onstage with her. Sometimes, you might watch her from a distance, but you’ll also get to rehearse with her. I mean, really rehearse: you’ll see the studio through her eyes, and listen to her brain rapid-firing instructions step by step.

The Everywoman Ballerina wasn’t born that way; she grew. So you’ll watch as she stumbles into the wrong class as a child but is too terrified to say anything. Luckily, she was too scared by a tyrannical Greek teacher to quit— she just tried harder to do what he demanded.

Most performances begin at the beginning, but this one will start near the end. So please, read on, into the ordinary miracle that it means to be an Everyday Ballerina.

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COMING UP DAILY FOR THE NEXT ELEVEN DAYS: 

  

2:         The New York School of Ballet (part 1)

3:         The New York School of Ballet (part 2)

4:         The New York School of Ballet (part 3)

5:         The Summer of 1992

6:         Into the Night

7:         Orange

8:         The Human Monolith

9:         Places

10:       The Drive Home

11:       Quivering

12:       The Time I Taught Someone Something

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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.

ArtsWatch Weekly: bellying up to the barre

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

So a terrific dancer walks into a barre and decides to write down what she sees and feels and does. Six years after Gavin Larsen retired from Oregon Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer and mainstay of the company’s halcyon years, dance followers in Portland still marvel at the memory of her energy and grace onstage. She was “a superb, elegantly balanced, dramatically engaged dancer,” as I wrote about her 2009 performance in Josie Moseley’s Hold My Hand at Conduit.

You could pretty much say that about her writing, too: after all, writing is its own form of performance. Larsen has forged a new career as a writer and a teacher since leaving OBT, publishing in publications as diverse as Dance Magazine and The Threepenny Review. She’s contributed to Oregon ArtsWatch, too, training her perceptions on the role of ballet masters in the 20th century, the legacy of the late studio pianist Robert Huffman, and the path to stardom of Northwest Dance Project’s Ching Ching Wong, among other stories.

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Starting Sunday, Larsen’s writing for ArtsWatch will get more personal. That’s the day we’ll begin publishing Everyday Ballerina: The Shaping of a Dancer, a twelve-part daily series of reminiscences and turning points that pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Just a taste of the style you can look forward to, from Gavin’s recollections of performing in The Rite of Spring: “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.”

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Will and a way

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The first thing we do, let’s count all the layers. He’s been updated, squeezed down, rethought, rewritten, cleaned up, dirtied down, worshipped unabashedly, reviled occasionally, shrugged off as a front man for some more sophisticated writer (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the latest in a long line of contrarian candidates), quoted out of context ’til the cows come home.

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

And still, four hundred years after his death, old Will Shakespeare’s a survivor. In a lot of ways, it seems, he’s never been healthier. He’s translated into pretty much every language of any size on Earth, and adapted into everything from ballets to symphonic musical scores to teen-movie comedies. And he’s an economic powerhouse: towns from Ashland, Oregon to Stratford-upon-Avon, England are built on the sturdy foundation of the money and visitors he draws in.

So, happy anniversary, Will. No one’s absolutely sure of the precise date he was born, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564 (probably three days after his birth), and died on April 23, 1616, and April 23 – this Saturday – is the day that much of the world will be celebrating his legacy. In Portland, the biggest party might be Shakespeare at 400, an all-day event (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. It’s presented by PSU, the Portland Shakespeare Project, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play On! Project” of contemporary “translations” of the plays (that word’s caused a lot of ruckus in the Church of Shakespeare), with input from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Wonder of Will celebration. There’ll be lectures, and readings, and a sonnet slam, and excerpts from three of OSF’s controversial translations by contemporary playwrights. Come see and hear for yourself what Amy Freed’s done with The Taming of the Shrew, Ellen McLaughlin with Pericles, and Douglas Langworthy with Henry VI: fresh approaches, or sacrilege?

Everything’s free, but organizers want to know how many people will be showing up, so click that link above and send in your RSVP.

"Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing," William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons

“Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons

 


 

Once upon a time the woods were mighty, and so were the men who worked in them. Paul Bunyan could clear-cut a hillside with a single swing of his ax (such activities are frowned upon these days) and hard-working, hard-living woodsmen were memorialized in folk songs: I see you are a logger, and not just a common bum, for nobody but a logger stirs his coffee with his thumb.

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Age before (and beside) beauty

Nicolo Fonte's "Beautiful Decay" for Oregon Ballet Theatre eloquently reflects on youth and age

“Crabbèd age and youth cannot live together,” a poem attributed to William Shakespeare tells us.

That may be, but they sure as hell can dance together, and damned well, as sixtysomething guest artists Gregg Bielemeier, Susan Banyas and the energetic, fleet members of Oregon Ballet Theatre showed us Thursday night in the company premiere of  Nicolo Fonte’s  lovely ballet Beautiful Decay.

The evening-length work, originally made for Philadelphia’s BalletX, concludes the company’s twenty-sixth season with an eight-performance run at the Newmark Theatre, this weekend and next.

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in "Beautiful Decay." Photo: Yi Yin

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in “Beautiful Decay.” Photo: Yi Yin

From Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, which was the second half of OBT’s fall opener,  to Balanchine’s Nutcracker and James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, this has been a season of story ballets, and Beautiful Decay not only carries a narrative thread tied to the life cycle and the (expletive deleted) aging process, it also includes some of the conventions to be found in what ballet historians often refer to as the big three: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty, all with music by Tchaikovsky. Beautiful Decay is set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, contemporary composer Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed, and a few pop songs composed by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds.

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Gregg Bielemeier and Susan Banyas talk about aging artfully

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Nicolo Fonte is working with two Portland dance legends on "Beautiful Decay"

Beautiful Decay, choreographed by Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, features veteran Portland dancers Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier as it explores the inevitability of time and its changes on the human body.

This piece seems like a significant step forward in the discussion of age in ballet, specifically, and in the culture, more generally. Our obsession with youth, I think, is hindering the full expression of the dance art, something that develops with age.

I caught up with Susan and Gregg three weeks ago to talk about their experiences inside Beautiful Decay.

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Dance Weekly: Past and future lenses

Keith Hennessy dances himself to death, a new dance film festival is born, Kyle Abraham is in town and audiences now need their passports.

Over the weekend I saw choreographer/performance artists Keith Hennessy perform “Bear/Skin” presented by PICA, and Oregon Ballet Theatre perform James Canfield’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It may seem like an odd pairing, but they were perfect together, each filling in where the other was incomplete, at least for me.

Before he performed, Hennessy “explained” his dance by reading a short essay he had written. Some of the points he touched on: Democracy is founded on slavery, misogyny and genocide; modernism is deeply rooted in racist cultural appropriation; and action films are a bridge between our cop-killing desires and the narrative of “The Rite of Spring,” which exposes gendered roles of the female as sacrificial and the male as protector. I suppose all of those are debatable propositions.

Hennessy danced the “chosen one’s” dance to the death from “The Rite of Spring” while wearing a man-sized teddy bear costume strapped to his back after telling us that once upon a time you could get money for killing American Indians, different amounts for men, women and children. And when they ran out of Native Americans, the bounty changed to grizzly bears until the bears ran out. For me, all of this was an extraordinary lens to view “Romeo and Juliet” through, and at some point during “Romeo and Juliet” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if ballet audiences went to see Hennessy and Hennessy audience went to see the ballet?”

Arts Watcher Martha Ullman West had a wildly different experience seeing “Romeo and Juliet” and talks about it in her review.

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