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.
Gavin Larsen at age 17, School of American Ballet workshop performance of “Who Cares?” by George Balanchine