ARTFUL. CARD QUICK BALLERINA. NEVER FOLDS.
BY LINDA BESANT, April 2006
Though Gavin Larsen grew up in New York, she seems to be a Westerner at heart. From the moment she arrived in Portland it has felt like home, perhaps because she danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle for several years. Now she’s busy exploring Oregon’s natural wonders and enchanting OBT audiences with her artistry.
What sparked your interest in ballet as a child?
I’m not sure exactly why I started taking dance as a little girl. I think it might have had something to do with clothing. I was just obsessed with frilly dresses and ruffles—little-girlish, pink, the lacier the better. For some reason, I must have seen TV or books or something, I associated ballet with pretty pink tutus. My parents also say that I was dancing around the house constantly from the time I was a little, little kid, any time there was music on, of any type. I have some very fuzzy memories of insisting on putting on a show when my parents had a dinner party, however embarrassing that is now.
I think the combination of those two things got me enrolled at a fairly small neighborhood ballet school called the New York School of Ballet which was run by Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis, former New York City Ballet dancers. The school was actually in the same building, the same studios, that the School of American Ballet had used during the 1950s and 60s, so it was a very historic space. There were all sorts of wonderful old pictures on the walls, of Balanchine working with Suzanne Farrell, Diana Adams and Jacques d’Amboise, Igor Stravinsky, all these legendary people, in the same studios where I first learned how to plié. In fact, there’s one really well known picture of Balanchine demonstrating tendu, with his hand out, in the very place where I learned how to do a tendu. It’s a really neat thing for me to see those pictures and know that 30 years later I was there, doing the same thing.
Were you smitten with ballet from the very beginning of your training?
I was very shy and timid as a little girl. The first time I went to a formal ballet class, one Saturday morning, somehow I wandered into the wrong studio. Everyone was wearing the same thing at all the levels—black leotards, pink tights—so I had no idea that I was in the wrong class, with all these kids who were two or three years older than I was and had been taking ballet for a couple of years. The teacher was very scary for little children, very loud and insistent, and he didn’t realize that I was too young for the class. He would yell at me for not knowing what passé was, or how to do a pirouette. I was just terrified. I cried every Saturday morning, and didn’t want to go back. It took a few weeks before the problem was sorted out, and by then the teachers decided I should stay in the class because I was catching up really fast.
I stayed, but still was just terrified by the whole situation. There were no frills or lacey dresses involved at all. I didn’t like it, and after that first year I stopped and started taking gymnastics lessons instead. There was a very strict Russian coach, a thick-accented old man who yelled at me to do things that were scary, so little shrinking-violet me didn’t do so well with that either.
For whatever reason, when I was a couple of years older I told my parents I wanted to take ballet classes again. Then I actually started to enjoy it. The teachers started to instill the love of moving to music and everything started to make sense. I didn’t care about frilly outfits anymore, I was just happy to be there and learn to do ballet, and especially how to do it to music. The New York School of Ballet had fantastic pianists who played beautiful music even for basic classroom exercises, and I was carried away, I just absolutely floated away. I loved it more than anything and didn’t want to do anything else.
The sad thing is that after I had been there a couple of years, this gorgeous studio had to close because the rent was raised, and they couldn’t afford this historic space. The teachers in the school told my parents that if I was serious about continuing my training I should audition for the School of American Ballet (SAB) and see what happened next. So I went down and did an audition. Once again terrifying Russian old people scared me to death, but I got in and started classes the very next day.
Once a week Karin von Aroldingen taught. She was incredibly inspiring. She just let us dance, us little eleven and twelve-year-olds. The classical pianists played beautiful music and we would just fly. The other two times a week we had these strict Russians—Antonina Tumkovsky and Helene Dudin—very square and very militant, but that was the way it was, that was the foundation of the SAB training. Later teachers also emphasized the vital importance of being aware and sensitive to the music, like Susan Pilarre, Suki Schorer, Kay Mazzo and Stanley Williams.
Then I was kind of on the path and I never veered off for a minute. Nothing else ever came along that interested me. The atmosphere at SAB is all-consuming. Right away at a very young age you are being considered to dance children’s roles at New York City Ballet, on the stage of the New York State Theater. I didn’t realize, I think my parents realized more than I did how big of a deal it was. For me, it was just fun and what everyone else was doing. I do credit those early experiences of being on stage with the quintessential professional company as pivotal—it was just a given after that, that ballet was what I was going to do. Our lives were steeped in that culture and atmosphere—those dancers, the classes, the smell, rehearsals, everything was just fascinating. I couldn’t imagine why anything else would be more interesting to anybody.
I stayed at SAB until I was 17. I had actually been going to Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) for summer classes. Kent Stowell and Francia Russell saw me as a student, and my last summer we had a little conference about my professional plans, and I ended up dancing for PNB.
With such an intense focus on ballet training, do you feel that you missed out on your childhood?
Absolutely not. Not to put anyone else’s childhood down, but I feel like I had a richer childhood than many kids do. The friends you make in a ballet school are so close, so steadfast, because you’re going through trying circumstances together. The training is really hard, but you’re standing right next to someone else who’s struggling to do it too. You can commiserate and laugh and make jokes together; and then, of course, the experience of performing is so valuable. As child performers, we were expected to act as professionally and seriously as the adults. Respect and awe for the stage and the theater became a part of me, and still very much are. Balanchine’s children’s roles demand focus and hard work in exchange for being an integral part of the production.
As far as missing out on playing sports after school, or going to the prom, I couldn’t have cared less about that stuff. Honestly. The kids who aren’t as called to it tend to drop off because it is more than they’re interested in doing. By my last year at SAB, I think there were only three of us from my original class out of about 20. Over the years, they studied something else, or they didn’t have quite the aptitude or the body for ballet.
How did you end up dancing here at Oregon Ballet Theatre?
In New York, I ran into Christopher Stowell on the sidewalk. I’d met him a few times when he came up to Seattle to visit his parents or guest with PNB. I was surprised that he remembered who I was, much less that he would stop and talk. We kept in touch and when he was hired as Artistic Director here, he offered me a position.
I love it in Portland. I love the job first of all—dancing here is what I love most about the city. From the minute I came here I felt like I was at home, maybe because I lived in Seattle for several years. There are a lot of similarities between the two cities, but I think I like Portland better. It has everything that a big city can offer without the grind. People always ask me if I miss living in New York and, not really. I love to visit but I don’t want to live there. I like this pace so much better. I like living on a residential street but being able to walk around the corner to the store or a nice coffee shop. I like being able to drive 20 minutes and be in the mountains or the forest, but then you can come back to the city and have world-class arts institutions—museums, ballet, opera, music, visual art. It’s such a vibrant community and everyone is so involved in their city. People value what they have here. Total strangers I bump into know about OBT, they’re aware, they’re tuned in, and they are proud of their local artists. When I danced for Alberta Ballet in Calgary, no one knew they had a company. When they found out, they could really care less. Differences like that make this city so wonderful.
When you’re not dancing . . .
Well, obviously I like to play poker. I’m not hard-core about it. I don’t go to dens where card sharks hang out or anything. I just like to get together with friends and play a few rousing hands of seven-card stud. That goes way back to childhood. When I was little, my sister and my parents and I would sit around the dining room table and they taught us how to play. I must have been seven or eight. We’d have a jar of pennies, and they taught us how to bet, and look at what the hands were, how to add. By the way, despite what the caption on the poster says about me, I DO know when to fold!
I’m also getting into exploring Oregon and really making it feel like my home. I’ve been taking short jaunts to different areas like the coast and central Oregon, to discover all the natural beauty that’s around. That is another thing that helps clear my head when ballet feels overwhelming. My favorite place so far is Balknap Hot Springs outside of Eugene.
And people might not know . . .
That I think I’m a whiz at the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. In pen. I love all the puzzles, I do them all, but I’m partial to that one. It’s a major part of my weekend. That comes from my parents as well. It’s a ritual for them, every weekend, from the time I was teeny-tiny. The puzzle would be lying around the house, and I remember the first time I picked it up and realized, oh, I know what the answer is. I like it because it kind of forces me to put other things aside. It distracts my mind, but not in an empty way. At the end of a hard day, I won’t be able to fall asleep unless I do something that transitions my mind away from what I’ve been working on all day.
Do you have a sense of what you’d like to do when it comes to a time in your life when you’re no longer dancing?
I have a sense, but I don’t have specific goals yet. I know for sure that I want to stay in the world of ballet. I love ballet, and have spent so many years learning about it in every way that I can. I want to pass my knowledge on and use it for more than performing. I’m not sure exactly in what capacity. I like teaching, and will probably always teach—it's very rewarding—but I think there’s more. I love talking to people about what we do, and I love “spreading the gospel,” so to speak, about ballet and dance in general. It’s so gratifying to hear of people’s first experience at the ballet and making them into converts!
If your job is what you love most of all about Portland, what do you love most of all about your job?
This company is different from any other company I have danced in, in all good ways. There’s an atmosphere of professionalism, of maturity, of independence. Christopher treats his dancers as independent artists. He gives us the freedom to be ourselves. While giving a lot of excellent guidance and help and training and coaching, he still gives us the freedom to work things out artistically by ourselves, which I really appreciate, and I haven’t really been given that before. There’s a level of trust that he has in me, that makes me trust myself, that gives me self-confidence. He’ll be there for the initial teaching or choreographing process. Then he lets us work through things on our own, to find the way that is comfortable for us, and then offers tips, offers suggestions, offers advice - “You might want to try this. This might work better for you.” He doesn’t impose things on you - “You have to do this.” Even when he was choreographing Adin, which is one of the times I worked with him as a choreographer, there was so much give and take that I really felt that I was a part of the creative process.
We have a lot of fun in the company, which is hugely important. We work hard, but we laugh hard, too. You have to keep a sense of humor close by, or you can drive yourself crazy.
I love OBT’s repertoire also, the ballets that Christopher chooses for us to perform. That is what keeps me engaged here. It’s the perfect balance of classical, neo-classical and contemporary. A lot of companies profess to strive for that balance but few actually achieve it.
In three seasons I’ve been able to perform at least half-a-dozen dream roles. To do the Adagio in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, that was my childhood dream. I grew up seeing that ballet. And Serenade. I’ve seen it a million times, and danced in the corps a million times, and never thought I would get to do the Waltz. Then surprise career highs, like Kent Stowell’s Orpheus Portrait. And Who Cares? too, Patricia McBride’s part. My whole background and training were steeped in watching the Balanchine ballets. They are what instilled the love of movement, really. I remember watching Concerto Barocco and just wanting to swoon, it’s so indescribably beautiful, and thinking, there could be nothing better on this earth than to dance to that music. And then, lo and behold . . . I can’t thank Christopher enough for giving me those chances.
I can’t stress too much how thrilling and gratifying it is to have the opportunity to sink my teeth into roles and ballets that I grew up worshipping, along with new ones that I never knew I would worship (but now I do). Establishing partnerships with some of my colleagues is another hugely rewarding thing. I love, and feel very strongly about, making every single second onstage count, and being able to dance with a partner (or an ensemble, for that matter) that feels that way also is a wonderfully gratifying experience. Doing Concerto Barocco with Matthew Boyes in 2004 was an example—he and I have a shared background (we trained at SAB together), and I knew that he felt as respectful of that choreography as I do. I felt like we were together, making a dream come true for both of us. It’s fascinating to strike up a different connection and point of mutual ground with each new partner.