It began, long ago, on the morning she stepped inside a well-worn building in her native New York City. It was a building she hadn’t been to before, but it felt right for the sort of beginning she was embarking upon.
“To an eight-year-old, especially one there for the first time, the New York School of Ballet was confusing,” Gavin Larsen writes in her vividly engaging new memoir, Being a Ballerina: The Perfection and Power of a Dancing Life. “Crowded into the big hallway cum lobby, there were certainly a lot of young children who looked like they were there for ballet class, but then there were all these adults around – clearly dancers, real ones – who looked as old as parents, though they were, probably, late teenagers.”
She didn’t know what to do, and found herself in the wrong class, one a little more advanced than her beginner status. What should she do? Pretend. “Pretend soon became everything,” she writes. “… Play follow-along, but never think of speaking up – don’t ask a question; they’ll know you made a mistake – just stay quiet and hope no one notices.”
BEING A BALLERINA: THE PERFECTION AND POWER OF A DANCING LIFE
By Gavin Larsen
University Press of Florida, publication date April 27, 2021
Paper, 272 pages, $26.95
There were other students, some of whom seemed to know so much more. And teachers, some encouraging, some, like the fearsome old Greek taskmaster, daunting. So much to learn, so much to go wrong, so little that seemed to go right. Yet somehow she learned, and adapted, and even thrived.
“Dance is impermanent,” Larsen, the memorably graceful former principal dancer at Oregon Ballet Theatre, remarks at one point in Being a Ballerina, “which I find to be a tragic blessing.”
Impermanent, indeed: Like a professional athlete’s, a professional ballet dancer’s career begins young and, relying as it does on the intense training and peak conditioning of a body in its prime, ends when many other people’s are just hitting their stride. But when you’re starting you don’t think of endings. And by the time she was 10, Larsen was firmly hooked.
“The ritual was fun now,” she recalls, writing of herself in third-person remove. “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 front doors of the ballet school. They’d get cheese danishes wrapped in airtight plastic bags, or Styrofoam plates of scrambled eggs, sausages, pancakes, and maple syrup, and her parents would drink coffee. When it was time, she’d set off to walk by herself to the ballet school, open those front doors, and leave Broadway behind to climb the mountainous flight of stairs. Her parents, pretending to be calm and casual, watched anxiously until she’d crossed the street, passed the candy store, and disappeared into the building.”
It was a disappearance from which, eventually, Larsen would emerge as a graceful and powerfully focused star during a golden period in OBT’s history. She danced with the Portland company from 2003 until her retirement on May 2, 2010, in roles as varied as George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, Yuri Possakhov’s La Valse (all three with her frequent partner Artur Sultanov), Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena, and as the wicked fairy godmother Carabosse in Christopher Stowell’s Sleeping Beauty. Larsen created performances lauded for the depth and precision of their technical skill and the startlingly fluid ease of her body as it swept through space. Nothing, it seemed, was wasted; each moment of movement seemed fresh and alive and somehow both necessary and sufficient.
Happily, those qualities of hard work, devotion to technique, and the joy of the moment carry through to her writing as well. Larsen began working on Being a Ballerina after her retirement, when she was still living in Portland (she now lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina) and was contributing stories to Oregon ArtsWatch and other publications. In 2016 she wrote a 12-part series for ArtsWatch, Everyday Ballerina, which contained the seeds of Being a Ballerina, and which you can read here. The book that grew from that series is a pleasure to read not just for the backstage stories it tells but also for the line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence reward of her way with words. Like a good dance, it’s swift, taut, and abundant. Dance insiders and aspiring performers no doubt will find it captivating. It’s equally attractive for anyone simply looking for a tale well told.
At age 11, Larsen auditioned successfully for admission to the School of American Ballet, the most famous ballet school in America, the feeder school for New York City Ballet and countless others. “A gaggle of Russian women, maybe a posse, all of them older ladies, chattered in a huddle in the front of the studio,” she remembers. “… They spoke in low tones, but each one insistently, persistently demanded attention.” Soon enough she had new teachers, new experiences, new demands. And soon enough she found herself onstage, before a huge audience, playing a baby mouse in Act 1 and a boy Polichinelle in Act 2 in the New York City Ballet’s grand production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. She was well and truly on her way.
More studies. More studio. More teachers. More training. More roles, more fears, more accomplishments – and then, finally, a move cross-country to Seattle with a contract to join Pacific Northwest Ballet, her first professional home, where she danced in the corps for seven years but felt stuck and so moved on, to Alberta Ballet, where the chances came and she blossomed. Then a year of freelance dancing in New York (sometimes landing gigs as far afield as Houston), and then a season with the Suzanne Farrell Dance Company, run by the former Balanchine muse and New York City Ballet star, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Then, back in New York, a chance meeting on Broadway with Christopher Stowell, who remembered her from Seattle, and was taking over as artistic director at Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland and rebuilding the company, and who wanted her to join it. And so, “I signed the contract, and in July I moved to Portland to start the last chapter of my professional ballet dancer life, which proved to be the richest.”
Larsen is very good on bodies and pain and injuries and stumbling and the perils and advantages of being, inside your body, your own artistic instrument. Feet are a problem. One chapter of Being a Ballerina is titled A Conversation with My Feet. The next is titled My Little Toe, and begins, “I dislocated my little toe on the living room carpet.”
In yet another chapter, she elaborates: “We dancers bonk up against the insanity of pining after someone else’s pair of legs day after day, but with age and maturity and years of fixating on our bodies – our instruments – we come to grips with what we have and what we can do with it. … I scrutinize my physique in the same way a painter stands back to examine her canvas. It’s my creation, made for a purpose.” And again: “That’s really my fear: physical failure. I can push through fatigue, no problem; that’s just brute strength of will. … But when my tendons, muscles, bones, ligaments, are ready to give out, I can’t control them. It has a plan for its own preservation that it hasn’t consulted me about. And that’s the scariest thing in the world.”
She is good, too, on things such as the pleasures of a good partner and the pains of a bad one, and on the differences between the ways that audiences experience a performance and the ways performers do, and on the camaraderie of being part of a company of like-minded artists. She is excellent on the magic of the places in which performances take place: “Theaters are mysterious places. … Embedded in the plush of the theater seats, the fibers of the carpets, the glass of the light fixtures, the wood of the floors, are fragments – pieces of every performance and rehearsal, every actor, dancer and musician who has performed underneath the theater’s flies, disappearing into darkness so many stories above. And with every passing day, week, month, or year, the theater itself performs, too.”
And she is lovingly perceptive on music. “I never wanted to dance ‘to’ the music, and not even ‘with’ it,” she declares, “but as if we were the same thing.” Writing about playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Its comedic melodrama suited me perfectly, and it immediately became one of my favorite parts of all time”) and Helena’s fruitless romantic pursuit of Demetrius, whose attentions are otherwise engaged, she notes: “The music, if it were visible, would be the deepest, darkest blood red, warning of what lies ahead, streaked with a mournful pity for you both.”
So many lovely little stories find their way into this larger story, which seems to me to have at its core Larsen’s recognition of the great dichotomy between precision and freedom. A young dancer is drilled in the perfection of timing and technique, an obsession that never goes away. But at some point, for true art to arise, the tyranny of counting needs to be joined by some sort of play – a dragging or anticipating of the beat; a surprise, a flow, like a fine classical musician discovering the improvisational spaces within a measure of a great composition, where time can be manipulated as long as the beginning and end of the measure itself land on their feet: “(L)et us play together. Within each note, no matter how short, are gradations. You can be on the back edge or the front edge of a note, tease out the length of it, or even smudge it a little, so long as you make up for it milliseconds later.”
Like dance, of course, a millisecond is impermanent. That may or may not be, as Larsen suggests about the dancing life, tragic. In the case of Being a Ballerina and the freeing magic of interpretation it is definitely, as she also suggests, a blessing.