oregon ballet theatre

The entire ‘Everyday Ballerina’

Your easy one-stop shop for links to and excerpts from Gavin Larsen's twelve-part series about the dancing life, plus a gallery of photos

On Sunday, August 14, ArtsWatch published The Curtain Speech, the first of twelve daily episodes of Everyday Ballerina, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Gavin Larsen’s vignettes about living the dancing life, from early childhood through her career at OBT, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and forward to her post-performance life as a writer and teacher. On Friday, August 25, we published the final episode. Now you can read them all at once. The twelve chapters are part of a larger manuscript in progress. For most of those episodes ArtsWatch was fortunate to have images by the master dance photographer Blaine Truitt Covert; you can see a selection of his work in the slide show below. Below that you’ll find links to, and brief excerpts from, each episode of Everyday Ballerina, gathered in one handy place. Happy reading!

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Everyday Ballerina 1: The Curtain Speech. “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. 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.”

Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old. “The noise and rushing current of Broadway are muted instantly as the old wooden door thuds shut, its glass window rattling once. Inside, everything is gray-scale, muted, dusty, and chilly. A wide wooden staircase leads straight up, enormously high and steep. At the top, far above real life and through a door to the right: a hallway, long wooden benches, and, on the bare floor, a big fluffy white dog acting as foot rest and greeter. The air is hazy and musty, carrying a cold, sweaty, stale smell, possibly left over from the generations of dancers before. Every room is a cavern. … Young children, talking excitedly, bring life to this museum that is the space itself. Their purple leotards are the only color in this movie.”

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2. “Now that she knew which studio to go into, the 8-year-old did return the following week, and the one after, and even more after that. As these weeks passed, she began to slowly gain, if not real confidence, a familiarity with how things worked. She followed along. She watched, and copied, but just when she started to think she knew everything she and the other students would be told to do during class, the teacher called for a step or movement that was foreign.”

Everyday Ballerina 4: Cracking the Door. “The next year, the girl, now 10, was moved up into the next level of ballet classes. She’d faked it well enough, copied well enough, worked harder than regular 8- or 9-year olds would, and, unsurprisingly, come to seriously love going to class. The ritual was fun now. Her family, a foursome, escorted her downtown quite early on Saturday mornings, where they all encamped at a table inside Burger King, half a block away from the rattly wooden front doors of the ballet school. They’d get cheese danishes wrapped in airtight plastic bags, or Styrofoam plates of scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes and maple syrup, and her parents would drink coffee. When it was time, she was sent off to walk by herself the half-block to the ballet school, open those front doors, and leave Broadway behind to climb the mountainous flight of stairs.”

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992. “I thought I had been duped. I was naive, even for a 17-year-old. But as it became clear that I had failed to notice a huge, crucial, completely obvious basic fact about being a dancer, I was rocked absolutely to the core. I’d been oblivious to something everyone else got but didn’t bother to tell me about, because it was so commonly understood. I was terrified. And I feared I just might have made a terrible mistake. It was as if, after desperately wanting and hoping to be granted membership into a special club, one whose members I idolized and that was my ticket to my dreamed-of life of a dancer, I had finally been allowed to join— but once I was inside, the expectations and assumptions and responsibilities were completely unlike anything I had envisioned.”

Everyday Ballerina 6: Into the Night. “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?”

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange. “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.”

Everyday Ballerina 8: 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. 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.”

Everyday Ballerina 9: Places. “’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.”

Everyday Ballerina 10: 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. I have to put ice on my hip, soak my feet in a bucket of cold water, massage the knots out of my legs, and stretch my back so it won’t spasm in the middle of the night. But at the same time, I wish the drive were longer, just a little bit. Arriving home means food, blessed rest, and sagging into my forgiving, fuzzy sweatpants, but it also means a return to real life. The time that I spend en route between the theater and home is all my own.”

Everyday Ballerina 11: Quivering. “From the audience she looks rock-solid, balancing on pointe in arabesque after a series of precariously difficult one-armed promenades with her partner. But from the wings, just a few feet away, we see the edges of her tutu quivering. The effect of vulnerability is both true and misleading, since her strength is real, but the intensity of her effort is too.”

Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something. “I have just spent an hour and a half leading thirteen women and two men in a classical ballet class, working them through a series of dance exercises that have been practiced all over the world for centuries. As “elitist” as the art of ballet may be considered, this particular class (which I teach bright and early every Monday) is what’s called a ‘drop-in’, which means that anyone on earth who has the urge to dance and $15 can walk in off the street and take a place at the barre. It’s billed as ‘Ballet 1,’ but all that means is you’re on your own if you don’t know the five basic positions and some other fundamentals, but also that I won’t be asking anyone to do triple fouettes.”

Everyday Ballerina 11: Quivering

In part eleven of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen reflects on the split between the vulnerability the dancer feels and the strength the audience sees

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 11 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Quivering.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

From the audience she looks rock-solid, balancing on pointe in arabesque after a series of precariously difficult one-armed promenades with her partner. But from the wings, just a few feet away, we see the edges of her tutu quivering.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

The effect of vulnerability is both true and misleading, since her strength is real, but the intensity of her effort is too. Every single fiber of every muscle in her body is engaged—not stiffly rigid, but called into play with calculated, modulated precision. Up close, a nearby watcher can see the constant recalibration required to maintain her arabesque, and even lift it higher and higher when human nature would tell it to droop. The determination reverberates to the edges of tulle spanning out from the basque of her regal tutu.

Her effort has been overtaken by some power she did not have when she woke up that morning. Yes, the physicality of her poses and movements is human. They are HER legs, arms, torso, neck, fingertips. But the surge of adrenaline that fuels them comes from somewhere else. She’s calculating every split-second maneuver, but there is also an unseen manipulator—an internal god, maybe?—who guides her and powers her to the end.

The strength and fragility of the moment: Jon Drake and Gavin Larsen at the "OBT Exposed" outdoor rehearsal in a downtown Portland park, 2005. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The strength and fragility of the moment: Jon Drake and Gavin Larsen at the “OBT Exposed” outdoor rehearsal in a downtown Portland park, 2005. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s electrifying for both dancer and audience— when the promenade is at its ultimate climax, as she releases her partner’s hand for an impossibly long balance alone, on one pointe, leg at a full 90 degree arabesque— some man from the back of the house ROARS, and the rest of the crowd erupts in turn — she is literally startled, shocked and stunned by a jolt of realization: There are people out there! And, They like what I just did?

But it’s not over— there is a lift, a pirouette, a toss in the air and a fish dive to finish, the audience’s thunder nearly drowning out the music. As her partner lifts her with compassionate strength (he’s on fire from the response as well), gently placing her on one pointe in a piqué arabesque and sweeping her into their agreed-upon pose for their bow, she gives him a secret “oh my God” look. (Recovering from the lift brings them into a momentary embrace, their faces inches apart, giving them a moment of privacy in front of 1,000 people). They move to center stage with a shared glee, disbelief, and gratitude. They bow for each other more than for the audience.

And then, as she exits stage left, he walks upstage alone, takes a deep, deep breath—and then another— to begin his coda. It’s not over.

Gavin Larsen and Adrian Fry (now with Ballet West) in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen and Adrian Fry (now with Ballet West) in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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TOMORROW, THE FINALE: The Time I Taught Someone Something. “I have just spent an hour and a half leading thirteen women and two men in a classical ballet class, working them through a series of dance exercises that have been practiced all over the world for centuries.”

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PREVIOUSLY:

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

Everyday Ballerina 4: Cracking the Door

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992

Everyday Ballerina 6: Into the Night

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

Everyday Ballerina 8: The Human Monolith

Everyday Ballerina 9: Places

Everyday Ballerina 10: The Drive Home

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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.

Everyday Ballerina 10: The Drive Home

In part ten of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen – "wrung out like a washcloth from exertion" – enters a post-performance reverie

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 10 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Drive Home.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

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. I have to put ice on my hip, soak my feet in a bucket of cold water, massage the knots out of my legs, and stretch my back so it won’t spasm in the middle of the night.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

But at the same time, I wish the drive were longer, just a little bit. Arriving home means food, blessed rest, and sagging into my forgiving, fuzzy sweatpants, but it also means a return to real life. The time that I spend en route between the theater and home is all my own, a time when I am relieved of the pressure and anxiety of tonight’s performance, but don’t yet have to think about tomorrow’s. I can sit with the satisfaction of having worked and danced hard (no matter how well or not-so-well the performance went) and just feel the effects in my muscles, before I have to inevitably let it fade away. Dance is impermanent, which I find to be a tragic blessing.

I’ve often thought about what happens in the audience after a show is over. The performance must evaporate so quickly for them. They have no buffer between the magic world of theater they’ve been in for the past two hours and their own return to normalcy. The lights come up, they creakily stand, shuffle about finding scarves and programs and inch their way out of the theater in a herd to find the car, get out of the garage, maybe go out for a drink. Maybe a few passing comments are made about the piece they just watched, but what they have witnessed represents only a tiny fraction of my life’s work and is designed to appear effortless.

Night reflections: Larsen with frequent partner Artur Sultanov in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Night reflections: Larsen with frequent partner Artur Sultanov in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On MY side of the curtain, things also change quickly, but since we’re all performers (all of us back there, even the techies, are “show trash”), the perfume of the performance lingers. The lights come up suddenly backstage, too, but it’s almost a relief, a reassurance— it’s ok to have just bared your soul in front of all those people, don’t worry, we’re just pretending, it’s the theater, we’re all friends here. We congratulate each other on work well done, commiserate about the trouble spots, rehash everything, laugh about it now that the pressure is off. Up in my dressing room (got to get my costume off right away so the wardrobe people can go home), I slowly sink into a chair. After getting out of costume (either peeling myself out of a unitard or getting unhooked from a tutu): pointe shoes off. Toe tape removal is frustratingly difficult and I roughly pull and tear at it. Finally my toes are free and I can feel them again. I carefully tug off my fake eyelashes, swipe makeup remover over my face, get wrapped up in my big towel and head to the blessed shower… to discover that the hot water is out again in this old, persnickety theater. It doesn’t really matter. I need cold water on my feet, which are now starting to burn, and it’s probably good for the rest of my body too.

It’s often been said that performing is like a drug, and I believe it. It’s addictive and certain personality types are more susceptible to its lure than others. It also leaves the “user” in a highly charged and somewhat vulnerable state of mind. It’s best if the descent from that high place is gradual, so that the distance of the drop doesn’t feel quite so drastic. The arc of emotions follows the physical transportation from stage to dressing room, to opening the backstage door, stepping outside and breathing fresh air. I think that’s why I cherish my drive home so much. It allows me to soften my landing, like putting out a parachute so I can ride down slowly, gradually, looking upwards at the sky as my feet come closer to the ground.

Larsen and Sultanov, 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Larsen and Sultanov, 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sometimes, on my drive, the descent feels glorious and jubilant, perhaps after a wildly successful premiere, or a repeat performance of a familiar ballet when I finally nailed the parts that had always been troublesome. On those drives, I might blast some crazy ABBA song and open all the windows to feel like I’m on top of the world. Other times it’s a little bleak, if I’m disappointed with how I just danced and wish I could erase it and try again. And often, it’s just neutral. Just another show, neither particularly good nor bad, just another day on the job. Satisfying, but the “drug” doesn’t mask much then. I just turn on NPR and listen to whatever weird late-night show is on. Strangely, an image comes into my mind of a lone security guard on the overnight shift somewhere, who perhaps is also hearing the same thing.

As I get close to home, First Avenue splits. The jog to the right would take me uphill, away from the neighborhood and around the city. Going to the left, the road curves down under Naito Parkway and snakes around to my front door. If I get caught at the red light just before this choice, I sit there thinking about the constant plainness of the activity that has gone on at this intersection while I was at the theater. Idling there, waiting for the light to change, I feel myself fitting back into the fabric of the city. The light changes, I go through it, take the road to the left, fold up my parachute, and go home.

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TOMORROW: Quivering. “From the audience she looks rock-solid, balancing on pointe in arabesque after a series of precariously difficult one-armed promenades with her partner. But from the wings, just a few feet away, we see the edges of her tutu quivering.”

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PREVIOUSLY:

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

Everyday Ballerina 4: Cracking the Door

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992

Everyday Ballerina 6: Into the Night

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

Everyday Ballerina 8: The Human Monolith

Everyday Ballerina 9: Places

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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.

Everyday Ballerina 9: Places

In part nine of a twelve-part series, disaster strikes Gavin Larsen in "The Sleeping Beauty," and then the magic goes on

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.

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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.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

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.

Gavin Larsen (arm upraised) and Javier Ubell (foreground) in Christopher Stowell's "The Sleeping Beauty" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen (arm upraised) and Javier Ubell (foreground) in Christopher Stowell’s “The Sleeping Beauty” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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 best-laid plans: Jon Drake, Gavin Larsen, ballet master Lisa Kipp, choreographer Christopher Stowell rehearsing "The Sleeping beauty" at Oregon Ballet Theatre, 2007. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The best-laid plans: Jon Drake, Gavin Larsen, ballet master Lisa Kipp, choreographer Christopher Stowell rehearsing “The Sleeping beauty” at Oregon Ballet Theatre, 2007. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

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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.”

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PREVIOUSLY:

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

Everyday Ballerina 4: Cracking the Door

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992

Everyday Ballerina 6: Into the Night

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

Everyday Ballerina 8: The Human Monolith

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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.

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…

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