Gavin Larsen said she first felt like a writer in 2015 during an artist residency in New Mexico. She was there, not as a dancer but to work on a book about her dancing career. And she was surrounded by musicians, writers and visual artists who knew nothing about ballet.
“They were full of questions,” she said. “And that’s when I was really like, ‘Oh my God: people are interested in ballet who are not ballet dancers. “
In “Being a ballerina: the power and perfection of a dancing life”, now out of the University Press of Florida, Larsen puts this theory to the test. Her poignant book, told in first and third person, is both a personal story and a universal vision of the life of a professional ballet dancer. It’s not what you might have gleaned from the horror film “Black Swan” or the recent sex and drug fueled series “Tiny Pretty Things”, which takes place in a ballet academy.
During her own studies at the School of American Ballet, Larsen learned lessons that she would take with her throughout her life as a dancer, including when she realized that being uninteresting as a dancer was worse than be mistaken. Larsen writes: “The dancer stuffed in her came out roaring. She would let her push her now, but also train her, watch her grow and lead her for the rest of her life.
Ballet is hard, and Larsen doesn’t spoil her experiences, which included dancing with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Oregon Ballet Theater, of which she retired in 2010 as principal. She describes the fatigue of reaching the three-quarter mark in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” like “like trying to type after walking outside without mittens on the coldest winter day.”
But despite the pain, Larsen conveys, through her words, the glory of the moving body from the perspective of what she calls an everyday or blue-collar ballerina. “My own abstract ballet career is not that interesting,” she said. “I was not an international star. I did not come from difficult circumstances. I didn’t have any unusual obstacles to overcome or obstacles to overcome in order to get there. “
There are many like her. Rebecca King Ferraro and Michael Sean Breeden, retired ballet dancers who host the podcast Conversations about dance, identify yourself deeply with the book. (They interviewed Larsen twice.) “She writes it for dancers,” King said. “Maybe that’s a guess to say, but it feels like it’s written for us and an audience and an audience member can enjoy it all the same.”
Who doesn’t like a biography of a star like Allegra Kent or Edward Villella, two great dancers of the New York City Ballet? Yet their experiences are hardly common. At one point in Larsen’s book, part of it is taken away from him. “She has to get back on her way and love finding that resilience within herself,” said Breeden. “It’s so relatable. It’s everyone’s story.
“Being a ballerina” is a question of dedication. It has its roots in “Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal” (1982) by Toni Bentley, an intimate glimpse into the life of its author at the City Ballet. But he can also be seen as a companion to the recent documentary series “On Pointe”, which followed students at the School of American Ballet, where Larsen studied from 1986 to 1992.
Now 46, Larsen lives in North Carolina, where she teaches at the Ballet Conservatory in Asheville. Recently, she spoke about why she wanted to put her life on paper, the connection between writing and dancing, and how being ordinary can be sublime. Here are edited excerpts from this interview.
Part of the reason you wanted to write this book was to dispel the myths about ballet. What bothers you about its portrayal in popular culture?
This is so wrong. It highlights the parts which are deaf and which are not important for the dance. They are only auxiliaries. The drama of the dance is the dance itself – the relationship between dancers and their craft and what they do with their body and with their soul. And all of us who have lived this life realize that we are living with this drama every day.
Is that why you want to attract people outside of the dance world?
One of my beliefs is that the more you know about anything, the more interested you are. That’s why I want to keep talking about it. And that’s why I want this book not to be strictly seen as something for dancers, even though I love the way it resonates with other dancers.
I feel like this is a way for a non-dancer to look at an inner passion of his own; maybe it will ignite the same inner flame in them, or rekindle a pilot that has gone dormant.
You almost called the book “The Everyday Ballerina”. Why do you like this description?
I danced fabulous ballets and fabulous roles. And yet there are hundreds of others like me – perhaps thousands. We could be exceptional in a way: you have reached the highest level of your career and you have these defining moments on stage. But at the end of the day, we’re all a gang. We’re all a team, we’re all a bunch of ballerinas. For the non-dancing audience you hear the word ballerina and you think, “Oh my God, superstar.” At times, maybe, but at the next moment do not. And I wanted to express that. The everyday, the ordinary to be extraordinary.
Is writing a different way of dancing?
Absolutely. I think it’s liberating in the same way as being a great, bold and courageous dancer. You have to be brave on stage to be an effective performer and to be an effective communicator with words, it’s the same thing. I could be alone in front of the computer and knock it over. I wouldn’t let myself think of who might read it. It was like being on stage. It was like doing my biggest, boldest grand throw. Throw it there! And then you go back to the rehearsal and you shape it and you polish it and you work your technique. You are working on your delivery.
But at the same time, you cannot edit a Performance.
There is no time stamp with the dance. The moment you do it, people see it. But having that stamp with the writing was a lot like being on stage with an audience. They can’t touch you. With this book, it’s done. My words are there. It’s like going on stage: once the curtain goes up and the music starts, no one can stop you. It’s just you.