There are plenty of autobiographies or memoires by big name, star ballet dancers. There are some by dancers with troubled backgrounds, or who overcome immense difficulties on their way to the top, or who have really interesting careers. Gavin Larsen admits that she’s not any of those. Indeed, when I first picked up her book, Being a Ballerina, I found myself asking, ‘Gavin who?’ Not any more.
In fact, and prompted by a list of the theatres she has performed in that’s in the back of the book, I now realise that I have seen Larsen dance: way back in February 1999 when Pacific Northwest Ballet came to Sadler’s Wells with George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. According to the cast list she was a butterfly in Act I and featured in the Divertissement in Act II.
Larsen was born and raised in New York City, where she trained at the School of American Ballet before joining PNB in 1992. She left them soon after that London visit, going on to perform principal roles with Alberta Ballet, and as a guest soloist with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (“a very plum gig”), before joining Oregon Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer at the invitation of then artistic director Christopher Stowell. After 18-years on stage, she retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on a career as a teacher, coach and writer.
While Being a Ballerina is Larsen’s story, it’s equally one that most ballet dancers will be able to relate to. For those who have danced, any number of recollections will inevitably spark off their own memories of similar happenings.
It’s a series of memories (she never kept a diary or journal); a poignant and very personal account of the ups and downs of, as she puts it, an ‘everyday ballerina’ (an early draft title). While there are moments that will make you smile, Larsen doesn’t sprinkle her story with sugar or fairy dust. This is ballet as it is; as it really is. I’m not sure I’ve read another book about dance like it. Perhaps Toni Bentley’s A Winter Season comes closest.
Those memories and recollections spill out over 226 pages across 57 short chapters, none more than ten pages long (plus afterwords and appendices). Each is a snapshot of a moment from her career, at school and in dance companies, from the mundane and unglamorous to the exhilaration, and sometimes pain, of performances.
It’s not entirely chronological. The first section in particular switches from childhood to adult and back again, not unlike the way film or television uses flashback. It opens with her first day at ballet school in New York. Not knowing where to go, she finds herself in a class too advanced for her, and essentially fakes her way through it, an embarrassing mistake that actually ended up helping her learn quickly. That’s just one of many childhood experiences told in the third person (she refers to herself as ‘the eight-year-old’ or whatever). You feel like she’s standing there, watching herself. It not only works remarkably well but helps draw links between student and company experiences.
Indeed, there are many lessons that any budding dancer should take heed of. Aged 16, she recalls how teachers’ interest in her waned as she stuck with what felt safe, but then how it suddenly dawned on her that being uninteresting dancer was worse than being wrong. “Sometimes being a model student is not helpful.” She talks of how one teacher (although most people in her story are named, a number of the SAB teachers are not) took her to one side and opened her eyes to the possibilities she had as a dancer, and perhaps more importantly as an artist, making it clear that she could just coast along in a sea of mediocrity or make something of her career.
Section 2 of Being a Ballerina opens with Larsen’s difficult first days at PNB. Having been granted membership of what she calls a “special club,” she says it was completely unlike anything she had imagined. Despite years at SAB, she felt totally unprepared and completely at sea. It was ” a test of toughness, adaptability and stoicism. It required worldly wise savvy, of which I had none…I was completely in over my head.”
But she survived. Although there were difficult moments, it’s clear that she found performing fun and very fulfilling. There are moments of elation, of pure ecstasy and joy. She described a moment at the top of a lift in the Grand pas de deux of The Nutcracker as being “the apex of life. This is the happiest a person can be. This is perfection. I may never be this happy again.”
But much of Larsen’s story, like those of most dancers is one of hard work, exhaustion, fear of failure and perhaps more than anything, the always present pressure. The daily grind comes across as being particularly wearing. She talks of dancing through extreme fatigue and injury. ‘The show must go on.’ Several times she details the daily routine waking and stretching before setting off for class, the tiredness that results from back-to-back classes and rehearsals.
Towards the end especially, she writes poignantly of her self-doubts, the fear of failure, and not being able to live up to her own standards and those imposed by others. Even in the darkest moments there is a powerful sense of support from her fellow dancers, however.
Being a Ballerina is engrossing, but in a very quiet, unassuming sort of way. Gavin Larsen very gently sucks you in as she lets you peek round that door into the world of ballet behind the stage. There’s no philosophising on the nature of the ballet world or its modern-day relevance, no lecturing or judging, all of which is wonderfully refreshing. Instead, she describes what it really means to be a dancer, and the often ordinary-ness of what is an extraordinary world.
She writes with a lovely lack of self-importance and occasional understated wit. Through all the difficulties and ups and downs, what really comes through is how much being a dancer meant to her, and indeed how much dance still means.
Revealing and relatable, Being a Ballerina is one of the most readable dance books I’ve picked up for a long time.
Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life by Gavin Larsen
University Press of Florida
Paperback, 256 pages
Cover price: £25.50, but available more cheaply from Amazon