Gavin Larsen said she first felt like a writer in 2015 at an artists’ 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 didn’t know a thing about ballet.
“They were full of questions,” she said. “And that’s when I really was like, ‘Oh my gosh: People are interested in ballet who are not ballet dancers.’”
In “Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life,” out now from University Press of Florida, Larsen puts that theory to the test. Her poignant book, told in first and third person, is both a personal account and a universal take on 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 at a ballet academy.
During her own days studying at the School of American Ballet, Larsen learned lessons she would carry throughout her dancing life, including the moment she grasped that being uninteresting as a dancer was worse than being wrong. Larsen writes: “The dancer-beast stuffed down inside her came roaring out. She would let it push her, now, but also train it, watch it grow, and ride it for the rest of her life.”
Ballet is hard, and Larsen doesn’t sugarcoat her experiences, which included dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theater, from which she retired in 2010 as a principal. She describes the fatigue of reaching the three-quarter mark in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” as “like trying to type after walking outside without mittens on the coldest winter’s day.”
But despite the pain, Larsen conveys, through her words, the glory of the body in motion from the perspective of what she calls an everyday, or a blue-collar, ballerina. “My own ballet career in abstract is not that interesting,” she said. “I wasn’t an international star. I didn’t come from difficult circumstances. I didn’t have any unusual hurdles to overcome or barriers to break to make it.”
There are many like her. Rebecca King Ferraro and Michael Sean Breeden, retired ballet dancers who host the podcast Conversations on Dance, identify deeply with the book. (They have interviewed Larsen twice.) “She’s writing it for dancers,” King said. “Maybe that’s an assumption to say, but it feels like it’s being written for us and that an audience and audience member can enjoy it just the same.”
Who doesn’t love a biography by a star like Allegra Kent or Edward Villella, two great New York City Ballet dancers? Yet their experiences are hardly common. At one point in Larsen’s book, a part is taken away from her. “She has to claw her way back and like find that resilience within herself,” Breeden said. “That is so relatable. It’s everyone’s story.”
“Being a Ballerina” is about dedication. It has its roots in Toni Bentley’s “Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal” (1982), an intimate glimpse into its author’s life at City Ballet. But it can also be seen as a companion piece 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 of 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 that interview.
Part of the reason you wanted to write this book was to dispel myths about ballet. What bothers you about the way it’s represented in popular culture?
It’s just so fake. It highlights the parts that are supercilious and not important to the dancing. They’re just auxiliary. The drama of dancing is the dancing itself — the relationship between dancers and their craft and what they’re doing with their body and with their soul. And all of us who have lived that life realize that we live with that drama every day.
Is that why you want to appeal to people outside of the dance world?
One of my convictions is that the more you know about anything, the more interested in it 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’s resonating with other dancers.
I feel like this is a way for a non-dancer to look at an inner passion of their own; maybe that will spark that same inner flame in them, or reignite a pilot light that has gone dormant.
You almost called the book “The Everyday Ballerina.” Why do you like that description?
I danced some fabulous ballets and fabulous roles. And yet there’s hundreds more like me — thousands maybe. We might be exceptional in one way: You reached the top level of your career, and you have these pinnacle moments onstage. But at the end of the day, we’re all a gang. We’re all a crew, we’re all a posse of ballerinas. To the non-dancing audience, you hear the word ballerina and you think, “Oh my goodness, superstar.” At moments, maybe so, but then the next moment not. And I wanted to express that. The everyday-ness, the ordinariness of being extraordinary.
Is writing a different way of dancing?
Absolutely. I think it’s freeing in the same way that being a big, bold, brave dancer is. You have to be brave onstage to be an effective performer and to be an effective communicator in words is the same thing. I could be all alone at the computer and just spill it out. I would not let myself think about who might read it. That felt like being onstage. That felt like doing my biggest, boldest grand jeté. Throw it out there! And then you go back to rehearsal and you shape it and you fine tune it and you work on your technique. You work on your delivery.
But at the same time you can’t edit a performance.
A time buffer does not exist with dancing. The moment you do it, people see it. But having that buffer with writing felt very similar to being onstage with an audience. They can’t touch you. With this book, it’s done. My words are out there. It’s just like going onstage: Once the curtain goes up and the music starts, no one can stop you. It’s just you.