Although having transplanted herself to the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago, Gavin Larsen is still true to a couple of her New York roots.
She still has that gotta-get-it-done-now edge that comes with living in a big city and she still loves The New York Times – especially the Sunday crosswords which she proudly admits that she is indeed good at; this is no small feat, as any cruciverbalist would tell you.
As many talented young ballet dancers do, Ms. Larsen attended the School of American Ballet (SAB) with the determination to succeed and the hopes of having her potential nourished and noticed. Her short commutes to the West Side of Manhattan were filled with the childhood dreams of being a ballerina.
Sure enough, Gavin Larsen would become a name recognized in the ballet circuit.
I, for one, was one of the many students at SAB who, although too young to recognize the nuances of my reasoning, admired Gavin when I could get a peek of her in the studio while waiting for my class to begin or when her more advanced one let out just a tad later than mine. I recall clearly appreciating her outward calm and the ease with which she danced.
As a professional, Gavin went on to perform with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT), the latter being the company with whom she took her final bow on stage.
Upon retirement from the spotlights, Gavin was inspired by a trip to Seoul, South Korea while the children’s Ballet Mistress at OBT School to begin writing about her experiences.
As is often said: the rest is history.
Now, amongst others, she regularly contributes to Pointe and Dance Teacher and ultimately honed these skills to produce Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, a memoir focused on the events that have largely shaped who she is today.
When I asked Gavin for an excerpt of her first book in order to prepare for this interview, I was graciously granted a review copy. Had I had the opportunity to hole myself up with breaks only to refill my coffee cup, I would have finished Being a Ballerina in a day – not because of its length but rather its capacity to draw me in.
Circumstances being as they are, I instead was given a moment to look forward to when I needed an escape from other aspects of daily life. The episodic format has you coming back for more, not unlike an addiction to your favorite Netflix series.
Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life by Gavin Larsen will be released on April 27, 2021 and can be purchased through University Press of Florida, from a local store near you, and on Amazon.
Interview with Gavin Larsen
‣ What were some of the principal motives for writing this memoir and why do you feel that now is the time to share it with the world?
I really did not have a motive when I began writing this book. It began as a way to cement memories and thoughts about my dancing life that I feared I would lose if I kept them only in my head.
As I wrote the early bits of the book, the memories, recollections, and fragments of episodes came crashing at me with so much speed and strength that I just kept writing. Pretty soon, it seemed like a neat idea to string them together in a somewhat logical way, though I did not at all want to turn it into a straight-up, chronological telling of “The Story of My Life.” I wanted it to be more of a collage, or a quilt, a patchwork of glimpses into the life of any dancer, that when seen (or read) as a whole would illuminate to some degree what it means to live with dance as the core of who you are.
As for ‘why now,’ the reason it’s coming out now is because I finally got a publisher and this is the date they decided to release it! I thought I had ‘finished’ the book a few years ago, but after several editors read it and gave me significant feedback, I ended up making many amendments, additions and subtractions, so the version that is about to greet the world didn’t coalesce until about one year ago.
Having said that, however, I do think that this is a really opportune moment for people to read Being a Ballerina. There has been a lot of relatively negative and melodramatic depiction of ballet in popular culture over the past few years, and while I am happy for ballet to be on the national radar, I don’t feel any of it is honest about what it really, really really means to be a dancer. To exist as a dancer. I hope my book does express that. Not the stereotypical bloody-toes-and-bruised-ego type of existence, but the soul of the life.
‣ Being from the same generation as you, having both grown up in New York City and attended SAB, there is so much that I could relate to and memories I could recall while reading your essays. Did you have an intended audience in mind while developing the content of the book?
No, I really didn’t, much to the distress of every agent, editor and potential publisher I approached! The first question they ask is “Who’s your audience? Who can I market this to?”
And you’re really not allowed to say, “Everyone!”
I may be naive, but I do think most anyone who is human would find the concept of feeling a passion in your core, so strong that you can’t ignore it, and the gradually dawning thrill of walking alongside it through life, quite fascinating.
But in practical terms, the most likely audience will be other dancers, students and professionals and recreational dancers, audience members.
I really hope I can reach artists in other forms, too, though. I have gotten amazing feedback from other writers and visual artists who’ve read early copies and say they feel incredible synchronicity with the episodes and feelings I describe as a dancer.
I would be over the moon if the book would be recognized as a work of literature, too, on the merits of the writing itself, not merely as a dance book.
‣ Being a Ballerina is written in such fine detail. Did you refer to journals that you’ve kept over the years, source anecdotes by others, or do you simply have an incredible memory?!
No, I really did not refer back to any journals or anything like that. It’s all from memory. Sometimes I’d see an old photograph from some ballet I’d done, or see a performance of a ballet I’d done, or something like that which would spark a memory.
‣ Although you candidly speak of your emotions related to events from childhood through the present, there are only a few moments in the book where you directly reflect on how your personal life – meaning that beyond the studio or stage – has influenced your professional one. Was this a designed effort on your part?
Yes, it was. As I mentioned earlier, several editors read early versions of the book and one main critique/suggestion was that I needed to show more of the non-dancer Gavin.
That was something I had deliberately avoided, because also as I mentioned, I wanted this book to be something of a distillation of the essence of being a dancer, and I thought that adding details unrelated to that would distract from the clarity of that message.
Plus, I am a very private, introverted and shy person (many performers are, ironically), and simply could not stomach sharing details about myself with the world.
That’s a big part of how and why I wrote many chapters in voices other than my own: it was a tactic that made me feel brave enough to express completely openly what I felt. It was sort of like being onstage, actually— as shy as I am, I’m absolutely uninhibited onstage, because I can “hide” behind a costume, a character, or the simple buffer of theatricality. Here, I was hiding behind another voice.
‣ There seems to have been an intentional decision to mention some of your teachers by name and others by descriptive title. What is the reasoning behind this distinction?
Again, it was a strategy to allow myself to be completely honest without worrying about hurting someone— in this case, my former teachers— and to tell it in a fictional style, while it was of course completely factual.
And then I enjoyed the veil of mystery around the descriptive ‘names’ I gave to certain teachers, as if it helped the reader carve out a picture in their own head of what they looked like and what their aura was like.
‣ As your dancer colleagues can attest to, and what others can safely assume, is that there are many ups and downs in a dancer’s career. Which of your characteristics do you feel have been your best friends throughout the journey and which your challenging enemies?
I definitely have the advantage of trust in the future. I never questioned my career choices, because I had this bizarre feeling of ‘it’ll all work out’, along with comforting myself with the self-talk about how no choice is forever.
That’s one neat thing about the dance life – it’s transient, mostly, so even a bad situation is relatively easy to get out of. I did often tell myself that during difficult times throughout my career: I always have an exit. I can always bow out, go somewhere else.
I also have a pretty extreme ability to push myself, both physically and mentally. That has definitely gotten me through some very hard ballets and very hard moments.
A characteristic that has been my ‘enemy,’ though, is a significant tendency towards self-deprecation. I have always had a hard time accepting and believing the validity of compliments. I wish I’d been able to internalize those positive motivators more, while acknowledging my flaws, without letting them pull me down emotionally. That’s a hard balance to strike!
Featured Image for this Interview with Gavin Larsen of the author with Artur Sultanov in A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented at Oregon Ballet Theatre, photo by Blaine Covert
Excellent interview and great background on the book. Thank you!