Gavin Larsen

 

Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something

In the final chapter of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen pulls the curtain on a long career onstage and begins to pass the torch along

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. The final episode of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Time I Taught Someone Something.

 

By GAVIN LARSEN

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.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Naturally, then, there’s a wide range of ages, abilities, body types, and personal motivations for “dropping in” on a Monday morning. Some of those who come to class have dance experience from childhood and some only started dancing as adults, but for everyone, wading into ballet technique in middle age takes guts, healthy senses of humor and realism, and a willingness to set pride aside. Physical limitations like stiffness and cartilage-thin joints are prevalent, but the natural coordination and instincts of childhood— the compulsion to spin around, jump, and be fearless— have also gone away. Coaxing adult students past inhibitions built up over the years is fun for me because of their attitude: no one comes to these classes unless they want to work, think, be brave and get ready to fly.

Gavin Larsen bowing at her final performance for Oregon Ballet Theatre, May 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen bowing at her final performance for Oregon Ballet Theatre, May 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Douglas, in his fifties, is tall, lean and proud. He trained in jazz and theater dance as a kid and even had a job dancing in cruise ship shows for a few years. He’s in every class, standing front and center and attacking every exercise with confidence. He prides himself on being a sort of ringleader of the adult dancer community, welcoming all newcomers warmly, generally playing the role of alpha male in the room.

One of my favorites is Josh, a forty-ish, small, wiry and muscle-bound guy with an impish grin. He thinks about ballet just as hard as he works at it (although his body is so tight it’ll never make balletic shapes). He likes to analyze why steps are done a certain way. His questions force me to find ways to verbally explain concepts that I have always understood intuitively. Why do you press down into the floor in order to pull up out of it? If you truly stretch your arm or leg, as I’m always cueing the students to do, how do you keep it from looking stiff? I love teaching him because he’s so chipper—laughing off his own wobbles and tumbles—but he doesn’t trivialize the magnitude of ballet training. He understands it as a high art form to be appreciated and respected, and has a kind of fascinated awe for people who’ve devoted their lives to it. After all, this may be the equivalent of a recreational cooking class for non-chefs, but he and the other students are still working with sharp knives and real ingredients that shouldn’t be wasted.

Today, Genevieve was in class as usual. She’s a lovely woman and, like Josh, tightly muscled. She quivers with effort to mold herself into the positions of ballet, straining and taking short puffs of breath although we’re only five minutes into barre and just doing simple tendus. I always pass by Genevieve and give her arm a gentle shake to help her try to relax her elbows while still holding on tight to her center. She resists me, as if she’s gripping a handrail for dear life. I am on an endless quest to get students to avoid over-tensing their muscles, except for that ever-necessary “tush squeeze”, of course. She understands what I’m asking for, but letting go is scary. I remind her that we’re just doing ballet, not brain surgery, and laughter throughout the studio brings an immediate release.

... and with her bouquet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

… and with her bouquet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Most weeks in class, several small goals are achieved only to be washed away moments later like waves lapping up on the beach, receding, and then reaching a few inches further to achieve more with each new surge of water. This process happens quietly inside each individual. Everyone’s pace is different, as is their starting point. It feels like a beautiful miracle to see fifteen people’s faces light up with understanding, and then, best of all, translate that realization to their bodies. Today, as usual, we were doing a pirouette exercise. “Reach your right arm, leading with the pinky finger, resist slightly in your shoulder like you’re pushing through water, and keep your elbows lifted like you can’t touch the tabletop in front of you. Make your arms perfectly round and methodical like a metronome.” The room got hushed—that’s when I know I’ve said something that might be sinking in— “Let’s all try it together.” We practice each element separately: just the arms, then just the feet, then arms and legs without a turn, and then we add it all together. I had been doing the step with the class, standing in front of the group with my back to them, but now I stopped and turned around to watch. I saw a mismatched assortment of people of all shapes and sizes and in outfits of every type, all reaching with their pinky fingers to the right and sailing around with the smoothness of soft butter.

*

CURTAIN DOWN. THE ENTIRE SERIES, EPISODES 1 THROUGH 12:

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

Everyday Ballerina 11: Quivering

Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something.

After the show is over. And life begins anew. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

After the show is over. And life begins anew. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

*

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 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. SEXEDATE. (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

*

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.”

*

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.”

*

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

*

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.

*

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

*

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 8: The Human Monolith

In part eight of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen creeps and crawls around the stage in the once-scandalous ballet "The Rite of Spring"

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.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

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.

The Human Monolith in Christopher Stowell's "The Rite of Spring" at Oregon Ballet Theatre: all together, limbs akimbo. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Human Monolith in Christopher Stowell’s “The Rite of Spring” at Oregon Ballet Theatre: all together, limbs akimbo. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

Continues…

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

In part seven of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen joins a mob of dancers dressed in Creamsicle colors onstage. Freedom overcomes mortification.

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 7 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Orange.

*

By GAVIN LARSEN

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.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

I hide. For as long as possible, I stay alone in my dressing room. When the stage manager’s “PLACES, PLEASE!” bellows through the loudspeaker, I scurry down a flight of slippery concrete stairs and take cover in the darkness of backstage, where, in the last seconds before the curtain goes up, the work lights have been killed.

I have company, though they are not all are as bashful as I am, or they cover it with bravado. Twenty-some-odd orange people have assembled onstage, where the jokesters flaunt their Creamsicle costumes as if to prove their superiority over this indignity. We’re an asexual bunch, a classless mob, and— almost— lawless. Men and women are exactly the same. The braggarts, the machos, the petite ladies, the newbies and the seniors, we’re all glommed together for effect. The sight of the coolest, most unflappable guys in the company swaggering around in pumpkin orange suits and little white socks is hilarious— ridiculous!— enough to shake me out of my funk, but I still want to cover my behind. The snarkiest fellow of all stands right in front of me in our opening formation, a huge V shape that takes up the entire stage. He keeps sarcastic comments and rude jokes coming, under his breath, every time I’m in earshot.

Gavin Larsen warming up, dressed in whatever color she wants. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen warming up, dressed in whatever color she wants. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

This ballet is controlled anarchy. We appear, to the audience, to be moving in preordained choreographic patterns, but much of what we do is a sort of structured improvisation. We have a leader. She is the woman, very small, standing with her back to the audience, smack on center, as far downstage as possible without falling backwards into the orchestra pit. She is not one of us— she is not in orange, but instead is as fully contrasted as can be. Muddy gray paint covers every inch of her body, including her face and hair and fingernails. A leotard, also covered in the drabbest dark grayish brown paint, is all she wears. She is barefoot.

This Muddy Woman is, discreetly, giving us cues, and clues. She signals us with sharp, semaphore-like arm movements, and we have to immediately mimic her with no discernible delay. She continues in whatever pattern she wants, as long as she wants, until her “end” cue sends us— the orange mob— running as fast and un-balletically as we can to a new formation. We’re not dancers. We are, literally, human scenery, and at certain times, percussion. We’ve been instructed to run without a care for grace or lightness, to pound our feet into the floor and hurtle ourselves through space (thus the non-slip pads on our socks). The wings have been lifted up to the flies of the theater, out of the audience’s view, so the stage appears endless, an infinity pool. There is no back, no sides, no ceiling. As we race from edge to edge of the vast space making diagonals, Xs, Vs, going from shapeless clumps to sardine-tight lines, flopping on our stomachs and then jumping up into Marine formation, the principals are dancing amongst us. Their choreography is the antithesis of ours. It’s en pointe, tightly wound and even more tightly stretched, stressful and wiry and taut, highly technical. The principals disappear from time to time, melting into our mass as we swallow them up in a swarm. The lighting is dark and shadowy, ominous, and our orange-ness pops out startlingly.

In the lights, colors shift. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In the lights, colors shift. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Muddy Woman moves with us, or ahead of us, running from spot to spot, but she must always be visible to every orange person on stage. When we form a gigantic box rimming the stage, no one may turn their head to see her. Noses straight ahead, eyes peeking to the side, we copy the movements as seen from a 90-degree angle, mentally translating them to our own bodies with insane speed. Those facing her have the easy job of being her mirror image. The Muddy Woman begins to move faster— though in rehearsals, we pleaded with her not to. Furiously trying to keep up, groans of frustration and nervous giggles start to be heard all around, but the recorded music is so loud it more than covers our eruptions. Just as we become frantic and hover on the edge of falling too far behind, revealing our individuality, the Muddy Woman signals us to halt and regroup. At one point, she steps out of the way for the “Sprint-Race”: at a razor-straight starting line, we’re crammed, shoulders overlapping shoulders, along one side of the stage, from front to back, too many of us to comfortably fit. As the violin solo reaches a specific high note, each of us silently begins chanting a rhythmic recitation of the months of the year. January…February…March…April… When the month of your birthday is reached, you’re off— tearing as fast as you can to the finish line on the opposite side of the stage, where the earlier birthdays with their headstart advantage have already won.

There’s more shape-shifting, then, including a spell of lying flat on our backs staring straight up into the flies. We lie in two staggered rows, bodies roughly aligned chessboard style, our heads pointing downstage so the audience sees only the tops of our heads. Our arms become visible, too, because now we get to pick and choose our own favorite gestures from the Muddy Woman’s vocabulary, doing as many or as few as we like, fast or slow or not at all (a few mavericks lie motionless, adding empty space to the collage we’re making). Arms that are in motion must stay perpendicular to our bodies, and to the floor, so the effect is of random, spiky spears jabbing the air. Every move has to be staccato and angular; our hands must stay perfectly flat, with fingers glued together like spatulas. Or knives. I’m beginning to enjoy the freedom of being one in a herd, and the bravery of being anonymous.

An orange dance of a different stripe: Paul Klee, "Senecio," 1922, oil on canvas, 15.9 x 15 inches, Kunstsmuseum Basel, Switzerland

An orange dance of a different stripe: Paul Klee, “Senecio,” 1922, oil on canvas, 15.9 x 15 inches, Kunstsmuseum Basel, Switzerland

By the end, our volume overwhelms everything. We’re released from the Muddy Woman’s spontaneous commands and take over control of the stage. There are no traffic patterns anymore as each of us carves our own road around and around, zig-zagging or not, any which way and at any speed we choose. Nearly fifty pairs of arms manically chop and slice as we stride about; there are near-misses and some full-on collisions. Each orange person is their own master now. We rule together, but alone, isolated without words— and invisible in front of 2,000 people.

My timidity returns the moment the curtain falls. I am just another body, clad all in orange.

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TOMORROW: 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.”

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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

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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.

Ballet masters of the 21st century

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Lisa Kipp and Jeff Stanton put the backstage beat and precision into "Romeo and Juliet," mastering the art of mastering everything

I wish the phrase “Ballet Master” would go away.

Those two words, put together, conjure up the image of a haughty, stern old gentleman in breeches, pounding out musical tempi on the floor with his cane and poking dancers’ bodies into desired positions. Ballet may be a traditional art form that’s proud of its roots, but it’s safe to say that — thankfully — this dusty figure no longer exists.

But ballet masters do still exist, and are important players in the daily operations of a ballet company. While the precise parameters of their role get fuzzy, they are as critical to the success of a ballet company as the dancers and artistic director. In many ways, they are the linchpin holding together the various artistic limbs of the group. They are the go-between, the conduit, the channel through which everyone communicates, and the person fielding every request, demand, and complaint. They’re the triage nurse at the ER. But they also sew up the wounds, monitor their healing, and make sure they don’t happen again.

Ballet 19th century style, complete with stick: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Ballet 19th century style, complete with cane: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

“You really do have to know what you’re doing,” Lisa Kipp, one of two ballet masters for Oregon Ballet Theatre, says. “You have to know exactly what you’re teaching, every count, every step, every detail. The dancers can tell if you haven’t done your homework and don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kipp and fellow ballet master Jeff Stanton are responsible for much of the look and movement of OBT’s revival of James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened last weekend and continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Continues…