In Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, Gavin Larsen—a former professional ballet dancer—describes the forces that drive a person to study dance; the daily balance that dancers navigate between hardship and joy; and the dancer’s continual quest to discover who they are as a person and as an artist.
Get to know Gavin Larsen in this Q&A and don’t miss her virtual book launch TONIGHT at 6pm, hosted by Malaprop’s Bookstore! Register here.
When did you know that you wanted to write this book?
I didn’t start out with an intent to write a book at all; I simply was spilling out memories, emotional recollections, episodes that had really stuck with me over the years and which struck me as encapsulating something larger about the whole concept of being a dancer and living a life in dance. As my little essays accumulated, I shared them with some people I thought would find them interesting, and some responded that strung together, they’d be a book. If I’d begun with a book as my end goal, I am sure I never would have completed it. Writing it this way felt manageable and more real to me. My grasp of what the dancing life really meant became clearer as I wrote in this mini-memoir form—each chapter really felt like, and is, a snapshot.
How did you first become interested in ballet?
I started taking formal ballet classes at around age 8, but according to my parents, I’d been dancing for much longer than that. I have vague memories of flitting about the living room in my favorite party dress, putting on shows for my parents and their friends. I also recall just being completely compelled to run, jump, leap and twirl any time I spied a wide open space—covering ground with huge, expansive movement was irresistible.
What was the hardest thing to overcome during your professional career as a ballerina?
For me, the physical technique was the hardest aspect of being a ballet dancer. Performing, acting, projecting, and being on stage—any stage—were easy, natural, fun, and wholly fulfilling. But often, the technical elements of ballet were what brought me down emotionally. My early training was haphazard and I never had an easy facility. Towards the end of my career, anxiety about not being able to execute the technical feats of any given piece of choreography became bad enough to chip away at my artistry. At that point, I knew I needed to move away from the performing career.
What was one of the most rewarding moments of your career?
I think performing the Sugarplum Fairy on opening night of our Nutcracker performance run with Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2003 was right up there with the most gratifying moments of my career. It was a huge responsibility but also an honor that I really felt proud to handle. That opportunity started off the last leg of my career, my final seven years of performing, and also marked the beginning of the era that I feel was my best as an artist.
Who was one of the most influential instructors you had and why were they so important to you?
I have had so many incredible teachers, and each has had a different type of lasting influence on me. But one in particular, who is a figure in Chapters 15 and 16, is Suzy Pilarre. Suzy captivated my spirit when I was a teenager, inspiring me and opening my eyes and soul to the possibilities I had as a dancer and an artist, and the power within me. I am forever grateful for her belief in my potential and her willingness to push me. Her energy and devotion to her students is unparalleled.
Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
As a youngster, I drank up every ballet book I could find. Every biography, autobiography, history, book of photos, anything and everything about ballet. I remember poring over the pictures, analyzing every line and shape, expression, and nuance. My vision of balletic style was formed by those works, both the words and the images. In particular, Suzanne Farrell’s Holding On to the Air compelled me by making this legendary ballerina a real person, without revealing too much of her humanity—she remained a mystery. That’s a bit of what influenced my own book’s format, and why I did not fill it with too many personal, non-dance stories and details. I wanted it to be about the dance, and the person who danced, and express the inner self through those avenues.
What is one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers find themselves in my book, whether they are dancers or not. We all, as humans, have an inner drive that compels us through difficult challenges and towards an elusive, sometimes amorphous goal. We’ve all felt wonderment at our physical selves, and gone through periods of confusion, questioning of purpose, direction, and doubt. I navigated through that with ballet at my side and in my body, and I think readers will discover (if they haven’t already) that the drama of ballet is inherent in the art form itself.
What advice do you have for young people considering a career in ballet?
My advice to young dancers considering a career in ballet is to just do it. Just keep going, keep moving forwards, with courage and the knowledge that you have the power, ability, and strength of dance inside you. Life in ballet is not unlike any other passionate career—especially in the business of making it your profession—but no matter what disappointments you encounter, the beauty of ballet is yours and no one can take away.
How is writing like dancing for you?
For me, writing this book really did have equivalent feelings to dancing, both studio work and performing on stage. Dance is a solitary pursuit; we work alone in the company of others, with common goals and partnerships, but ultimately all alone inside our own bodies. As a dancer, I expressed my feelings silently, through movement, and that felt incredibly powerful. I am not a talkative person, but I have a lot to say. Through dance, I could say it all, to audiences large and small, who were sitting there to watch and witness while I silently said my piece. I could command attention without having to shout anyone else down, and with the protective barrier of the stage, theatricality, costumes, and music. My writing process is similar to my dancing: I throw it all out there, and then refine. I feel brave about saying what I need to on the page, because I have the buffer of not being face to face or delivering that message out loud. I feel the page is my stage now.
For more information about Being a Ballerina, click here.