Gavin Larsen

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Bartow gift; last licks of summer

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

And suddenly it’s fall. Not on the wall calendar, but on the school calendar, by which thousands of kids across Oregon went back to their classrooms on Monday, a week before Labor Day, depriving them cruelly of a final week of summer break and no doubt dealing a sharp financial slap to the economies of towns along the coast and other tourist-reliant parts of the state.

What’s done is done, and your task is to get in a few last hurrahs in spite of the school boards’ impulse to jump the gun. Think outdoors, think Labor Day weekend, think (at least) of these three things:

Oregon Symphony Waterfront Concert. And the tradition rolls on – a big, booming, free concert along the Willamette, beginning at 12:30 p.m. Thursday (rain date Friday) and pulling out the stops into the evening with an all-star lineup of music by, this year, Wagner, Mozart, Puccini, Dvorak, Bizet, Tchaikovsky and Offenbach, along with some of John Williams’ music from the movie E.T: The Extraterrestrial and a little bit of John Phillip Sousa to punch things up. Downtown in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, near the Hawthorne Bridge at the foot of Southwest Columbia Street.

Art in the Pearl. Another longstanding tradition – this is its 20th anniversary of art, craft, music, and food sprawling along the North Park Blocks on Labor Day weekend – Art in the Pearl combines street-fair festivities with a broad range of things to buy. You can also just look, of course, and admission is free. Work by more than 130 artists in all sorts of disciplines will be on hand, and there’ll be demonstrations of blacksmithing, woodturning, boat building, fiber arts, and other forms. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10-5 Monday, between Northwest Davis and Flanders streets.

Love’s Labour’s Lost. The 47th season of Portland Actors Ensemble’s summer Shakespeare in the Parks winds up with performances of the comedy Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at Reed College, starting at 3 p.m. each day. It’s free; keep in mind that donations keep the ship floating.

 


 

"Rider with V," Rick Bartow, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Froelick Gallery.

“Rider with V,” Rick Bartow, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Froelick Gallery.

THURSDAY IS SEPTEMBER 1, which means it’s also First Thursday, which means it’s time to see the newest exhibitions opening for the monthly art walk at galleries across the city. This month we’re looking forward in particular to Froelick Gallery’s  Sparrow Song, which includes many of the final works of the great Northwest artist Rick Bartow, who died earlier this year at age 69. The work is astonishing, and the gallery’s statement puts it into perspective:

Continues…

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 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.

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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

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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 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

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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.

ArtsWatch Weekly: Blue Ribbon Special

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

Summertime, and the feeling is scattered. The rhythm of the season is both relaxed and jagged, irregular, prone to long gaps and sudden leaps. Quick: a day in the mountains, a weekend at the beach, a backyard barbecue before the weather turns and the kids head back to school.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 1.55.34 PMIn the past week or so I’ve spied a lovely giant wood-carved Bigfoot lurking by the side of the road on the way to Timberline Lodge, which whetted my appetite for funky folk art; and a swayback, smudged-white horse grazing idly beneath a giant Trump for President sign on a farm north of Ellensburg in central Washington, which whetted my appetite for oddball juxtapositions. Both are peculiarities that seem congruent with an August day.

Down in Salem the Oregon State Fair opens on Friday (“Here Comes the Fun!” the promos shout) and I doubt I’ll make it this year, but if I do I’m also pretty sure I’ll find some blissful oddities to contemplate. I note, for instance, that one of the ongoing features is something called Machine Mania, in which “Pistons Rule!” Plus, this year there’ll be a blue ribbon for marijuana crops. The mind boggles.

 


 

AUGUST ARTS EVENTS are often quick-and-dirty affairs, too, here and gone again almost before you can blink. A couple of short-term things coming up this week, plus a longer-running show to get on your calendar before it disappears:

"The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman." Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

“The Reimagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman.” Photo: Chain Reaction Theatre.

The Re-Imagining of French Gray by the Displaced Woman. The world premiere of Elizabeth Huffman’s reimagining of a 1967 Josef Bush play will run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Milagro Theatre. A co-production of Huffman’s Chain Reaction Theatre and Cygnet Productions, it’s directed by Cygnet’s Louanne Moldovan and stars Huffman in the dual roles of a wealthy Austrian queen caught in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1793 and a wealthy Syrian bon vivant caught in an Arab uprising in 2016.

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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.