A conversation with Gavin Larsen about her new book, Being a Ballerina
Gavin Larsen was a professional dancer for eighteen years, first with Pacific Northwest Ballet, then with Alberta Ballet and Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and finally and most significantly, for Oregon Ballet Theatre. She was never famous, but she had a good career, a career any dancer can be proud of. She has just written a memoir, Being a Ballerina, the Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, published by the University Press of Florida. It is a quietly engrossing book, the reading of which feels like peeking through the keyhole into a life in dance. It is not a life to be envied, exactly. Much of it, as Larsen describes it, is characterized by extreme effort, exhaustion, fear of failure, and a constant pressure the likes of which it is difficult for most people to imagine. At the same time, there are moments, which she describes, of an elation few of us will probably ever know in our own lives. Like this one, experienced while dancing the pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” set to some of the most sweeping, heart-stopping music Tchaikovsky ever wrote: “Suddenly at the height of the lift and on that one magnificent note,” Larsen writes, “everything was crystal clear: this is the apex of life. This is the happiest a person can be. This is perfection. I may never be this happy again. And that’s ok.” It is such moments of clarity, which Larsen captures so well in her writing, that explain why all the effort and mental strain are worthwhile, and even possible. Larsen zooms in on the sensation of dancing, the physical thrill, the lucidity and intelligence required to transcend the everyday. Being a Ballerina doesn’t philosophize or judge or try to put ballet in a larger cultural context. It doesn’t question its origins or its cultural relevance. Instead it hones in on the thing itself, on the way it shapes and fills life, imbuing it with a deeper sense of meaning.
Recently, I spoke to Larsen about her memoir. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Why did you start writing?
I retired from dancing in 2010. The year before, I had written a column for Dance Magazine called “Why I Dance.” Wendy Perron published it and I thought, wow, she liked it. And then I stopped dancing. I was teaching at the Oregon Ballet Theatre School. And one day, I had finished teaching a class and was walking outside of the building, and I looked into a studio where the company was rehearsing. They were rehearsing Christopher Stowell’s “Rite of Spring,” which I had danced just a couple of years earlier. I stopped in my tracks with this flood of memories, physical memories, of being in the creation of that ballet. And then I went home, and sat right down and wrote two pages, and those pages became one of the chapters in the book, entitled The Human Monolith. I realized that I had this reservoir of similar episodic memories that I wanted to catch and put down on paper. I started to look back on my whole life of dancing as these snapshots captured in my mind, and to write them down. Some were two pages, some where a paragraph, one page. They’re all very short.
So your writing really coincided with the impulse to write this book. As you say, the memories you describe in the book are so vivid. Did you keep journals during your dancing career?
No, I never kept a journal. These moments just stayed with me. At the outset, I wasn’t sure what my purpose was, or what thse little moments really meant. Then I realized that while each of these individual flashes might seem inconsequential, taken together they encapsulated a bigger idea I was trying to capture, a life in dance. And that’s when I took a memoir workshop. We got these title prompts, and I used them to delve into different elements of my career. I found it really gratifying and therapeutic. And when people started being interested in reading them, especially non-dancers, that was incredibly exciting and really inspiring and motivating. That’s how it started.
You alternate between writing in the third person and writing in the first person. Why is that?
I was so shy about writing my life story. That’s why the whole first part is not in the first person voice. I felt that if I wrote it in someone else’s voice, it would be easier to tell the story exactly the way it happened. That way it was easier to be as honest and as full as I could be as I recounted those events and those feelings. I wasn’t sure if I would ever introduce myself.
How did you decide on the structure of the book, which is more episodic and essayistic than a linear narrative?
The book was written in such a haphazard way. The first pieces were written for a memoir-writing workshop. Those are all in my voice and they come later on in the book. Then, after the workshop ended, I was talking to my parents. My father is a writer and my mother an editor, so I come from a literary family. My father said, I’ll give you a title prompt every week, like they did in the workshop, and you can use that as a jumping-off point. So I kept going. Eventually I had more and more of these little pieces. And that’s when I decided to string them together.
There is so much negativity around ballet these days, about its being an elite art form, and unhealthy, un-inclusive, abusive. Your book feels like a healthy corrective, though you certainly don’t sugarcoat the challenges.
That was definitely in the back of my mind, and it came from the back of the mind to the front of my mind as I got further into it. For most ballet dancers, it drives us bananas to see the popular culture depictions of ballet that are so melodramatic, overdramatized, sensationalized and just downright fake. Even movies that are a more accurate representation of daily life, like Center Stage, focus on the romances and the jealousies—that’s really not what ballet is about. Sure, those things might exist, but I don’t think they exist more than in any other profession or art form or even, you know, high school. I wanted to make sure people knew that the drama of being a dancer was in the dancing and in your relationship with yourself and with what you’ve chosen to do. You choose to do it, but also, it really does choose you. It’s such a cliché to say it, but it’s true. Once you’re swept up in it, and once you see what it feels like, it’s totally addictive. That’s why leaving it is so hard.
There is this duality in ballet. On the one hand, this proximity to transcendent beauty and the intensity of performance, and on the other, the brutally hard work, day after day, in order to be able to do nearly impossible things. You describe this so well in your book. Days when you’re not sure your body can handle what it has before it. Was there ever a time where you thought, that’s it, this is just too hard.
I never had a thought like that. Never, ever, ever. There were plenty of mornings when I woke up and everything hurt, and I thought, how am I going to do this? But even greater than the physical discomfort was the fear of thinking, how am I going to do this well enough to fulfill what is expected of me? That voice gets louder and louder as the years pass and the mileage accumulates, and eventually it is that voice that tips you over into retiring.
In the book, you describe the shock of going from being a ballet student at the School of American Ballet to becoming a professional dancer in a company, feeling lost, exhausted, overwhelmed. It seems so harsh.
Yes, unnecessarily harsh. However, today that situation probably wouldn’t happen, because most companies have a second company or a trainee program before you actually join the main company. Going from a school to becoming a corps member is really rare now. Also, most ballet schools are unlike SAB in that their advanced students get a lot more company-esque experience, they perform a lot more. They spend many more hours in pointe shoes than I did. And they’re much more familiar with what that life is going to be like.
You describe one of your teachers at SAB, Antonina Tumkovsky, one of those tough love teachers we all hear about in ballet. You write about her with some ambivalence, it seems to me, because even though she was perhaps too severe, too extreme, you clearly respect her and believe she pushed you to become a better dancer. How did you balance those two aspects of her teaching in your mind?
I just told it like it was. I didn’t judge it. But yeah, I was torn because on the one hand, I knew that she was teaching us to be really, really good. And I knew I was getting good by pushing myself. But at the same time, I hated her. I was so mad and angry because she was mean to us sometimes. She was very harsh, unjustifiably harsh or critical for no reason, or seemingly no reason. And of course, that was a class I dreaded, because it was just so hard. She didn’t tell funny stories and make jokes like the other teachers did. It was dry. But at the same time, I remember the feeling of coming out of that class, drenched in sweat, feeling like a champion for having gotten through it. So there’s definitely an ambivalence.
Do you feel like there’s a place for teachers like her in this day and age?
Kids, teenagers, young adults, they want to be challenged, they want to be pushed. And now that I’m a teacher, I see that. I see teachers who don’t push and don’t challenge their students, don’t try to hold them to a high standard, or show them a high standard and say go there. Those kids are the ones that are kind of wishy washy and end up falling away. It becomes interesting when it’s a little bit hard. Not ridiculously, unforgivingly unrewardingly, hard, but when it’s hard enough, and you’re pushed. You know when you’re in that ballet studio environment that you can achieve what is being asked. You knew that generations of students before you have done those same exercises. So you can do them too. So why stop trying? It’s incredibly empowering to have that kind of motivation behind you.
If you had a son or a daughter, would you want them to become a dancer?
Yes. Yes, absolutely. It’s the most glorious feeling. To feel that kind of exuberance and beauty, full power and extension and stretch and the marriage with music while you’re doing it, and then the community of other people who feel that same thing. It’s priceless. Everyone should dance. Everyone should let their soul sing. I mean, the hard things about ballet are hard. But, as I said, never ever did it even occur to me that there was a question of the balance between input and output, until the very, very end.
Dancing takes up so much of the self. What is it like to stop? Do you have to create a new self to replace the old one?
There’s a trite phrase that’s tossed around that when you stop dancing, you’ll finally have time to find yourself, right? I always bristled when I heard that. Because the implication was that I wasn’t being myself when I was dancing, when in fact I was actually being my truest, most authentic self as a dancer. Leaving it felt not like I had to reinvent myself or find out who I was. It was more about filling that space that dancing had occupied, and trying to feel whole without having that piece of myself being nourished all the time. I’ve been retired for 11 years, and I’m not used to it yet. I don’t think I ever will be. I’ve heard that from other retired dancers. But you adapt.
What do you miss the most about being a dancer?
It’s a fullness of spirit that I miss. I find it a little bit through writing. Writing this book did give me some of those same feelings of fulfillment. I have always thought of dance as another being another entity, a person, walking beside me, with me, inside me. And I know it’s still there in me, so I don’t feel too lonely.
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