By Gavin Larsen, author of Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life
It was a spring day, sometime in 2011 or ’12, and I’d just finished teaching a ballet class for the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. On my way out of the building, I passed through the lobby, which offered a wall-sized window into the company’s main studio space. Whatever dance activity happened to be going on in that large Studio 1—dancers taking class, warming up, rehearsing ballets or learning new choreography—was on full view for any and all visitors or employees of OBT, as if life in the studio was also, in a more relaxed form, a performance.
That particular afternoon, company dancers were in rehearsal with the artistic director, Christopher Stowell, for his ballet The Rite of Spring. I had been in the original cast of the ballet when Christopher choreographed it a couple of years before. It had been an unusual experience for me—and for everyone—since the piece was largely en masse: almost the entire company of dancers was in it, but only a couple people danced apart from what was, literally, a mass of bodies. As a principal dancer at the time, being back in an ensemble was jolting, but I soon began to relish it. The warmth of camaraderie, the deeply moving sense of power in numbers versus the that of using my own single voice, and the hilarity we shared to break the tension when the going got tough, brought me back to my early career, when dancing in a group was how I learned to be a professional.
The snapshot moment my eyes caught that day stirred up a strong, visceral reaction. The dancers were working on a section we called, amongst ourselves, the “human monolith.” Christopher didn’t give us any technical steps to do; he simply told us to “ooze” our way into a tower of people, with one dancer sort of becoming the capstone at the top, supported by a few of the strongest men in the group, and the rest of us cascading downwards from there in gradually smaller, flatter, muddier positions. The only direction he gave was that everyone had to be touching at least one other person at all times—a hand or a foot or a neck or a torso—and no one except the supporter-men could be upright. And no ballet positions allowed. We were to embody humanity emerging from primordial slime.
I watched the dancers work on “oozing” into the monolith and immediately felt myself in there with them—as if I was outside my own body, watching myself in the past, yet physically present. Sort of like reliving a dream. Every feeling, physical and emotional, came flooding back with such force I almost thought I was late for rehearsal and needed to run into the studio to join. But seconds later, another emotion overcame the first one: relief that I didn’t have to.
I was retired, had no need to pull my body into shape and into a leotard, no need to be ready to do what a choreographer dreamt up. But what I wanted to do was remember those experiences, capture them, and find within them a thread of truth about what on earth that dancing life of mine had been, what it had meant. Why had it happened, and why had it happened to me? How had it happened?
I went home, opened my laptop, and began to write. The essay that came spilling out, in one sitting, is my book’s Chapter 46, The Human Monolith.
After that day, more snapshot memories came cascading down, so many and so varied that I feared losing them if I didn’t work fast enough. I wrote them down; some were a couple of pages and some a couple of paragraphs (or less). There were episodes, fragments of episodes, slivers of thoughts, reflections, images, conversations. Eventually, feeling I needed some instruction in how to do what I was doing (always a dancer at heart, wanting corrections and instructions) I signed up for a memoir writing workshop, led by the marvelous Merridawn Duckler, who gave title prompts each week with the assignment to write two pages. Five of her title prompts, and the essays they inspired, became chapters in my book. I distinctly remember how excited I felt to run to my computer to write about The Fork in the Road, The Time I Taught Someone Something, and My Scar. As nervous as I was to share my work with the group each week (and to read aloud) I saw for the first time that I’d been right in my conviction that people—not just other dancers, but real people—could be fascinated by ballet as much as I was, if they were shown something a little below its surface. And that is how Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life came to be.
Gavin Larsen was a professional ballet dancer for 18 years before retiring in 2010. A principal dancer with the Oregon Ballet Theatre, she also danced with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Alberta Ballet and as a guest artist with Ballet Victoria. She has written for Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, Dancing Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Dance/USA’s From the Green Room, the Maine Review, and The Threepenny Review, among others. She writes and teaches in Asheville, North Carolina.
Featured image: Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Gavin Larsen in George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.