Instruments of Art
An Interview with Gavin Larsen, Oregon Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
We met with Larsen between shows during Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent April 2007 season of the “Eyes on You” program of “Apollo,” “Il Nodo,” and “Eyes on You,” a ballet to music of Cole Porter. What follows is a summary of that conversion.
I’d like to ask you something that I’ve not asked previously and that is, “What do you like about ballet?” But before we get there – and to other questions – why don’t we start with what we do ask everyone: How did you get started dancing?
I always was dancing around the house. I’d put on shows for dinner guests – and very carefully planned my entrances and exits. I started serious training when I was about eight or nine at Richard Thomas’ New York School of Ballet and was there for three years before it folded.
It was recommended that I audition for SAB [School of American Ballet]. I’d not heard of it nor did I know what it was, but much to my delight and surprise, I got in! I was eleven and put into children’s level 4 and continued there until I was 17, when I landed my first professional job – at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
I became obsessed very young, especially at SAB – no other world held any interest for me. It’s very important to focus on details in class. My first years, while giving me the joy of dancing, did not always give me the most solid technical training and I had a lot of catch-up to do. On the other hand, SAB is great for tendus, but not great at turns and jumps. I wish I had things in my training in addition to the SAB things.
When watching OBT company class, I’ve observed that you are very focused, allowing for no outside distractions...
There is a sanctity of studio and of the theatre. It bothers me that some students don’t feel the same. Our training must be treated with respect and importance. I’ve taken it upon myself to make up for things not in my training. For example, whenever I’m in New York and taking class at STEPS, I try to learn more. I re-evaluate and re-assess every day. What works and what does not. Certain coordinations were not drilled into muscle memory early enough.
You feel then that you’re a better dancer now...
Yes. I feel better now at 32 than even three years ago! As I prepare myself, I find that certain things have to be perfect – such as a 5th position or a balance must be there by a certain point in class, or I begin to wonder if it will be there for the show.
One of the times I was watching, Damara (Bennett) gave as the first exercise at the barre, something that was clearly designed to get all of you on your legs. I was very impressed...
Damara has been very helpful. Her classes can be notoriously difficult, but it’s good to be pushed.
Let’s continue with your career story...
Kent (Stowell) and Francia (Russell) hired me at 17 [at PNB], where I stayed for seven years. I loved it and was very glad that it was my first job. It was a phenomenal experience and good training. I appreciate that it was a large ballet company and I learned what the expectations are of how this all works. Yet after seven years, I was concerned that my career was not going where I wanted, so I started exploring options.
Mikko Nissinen hired me for Alberta Ballet sight-unseen from a video I sent in as my audition.
Having only met him once and only seeing him as a dancer, I don’t really know what he’s like...
Mikko is a phenomenal coach – helpful in the studio. He gave me a lot of opportunities and gave me back my confidence in my potential as a dancer, which I had begun to doubt. Being in Alberta Ballet was a good experience as I learned about life in a smaller ballet company – which is more common. Touring constantly – getting off of a bus to play at an auditorium and then getting back on to drive to the next site. The artistic staff was very good; European in influence. Leslie McBeth was our ballet mistress and very helpful.
I stayed for three years until Mikko announced he was leaving for Boston (where he is now the Artistic Director). He was my reason for being there, so I decided to shop around – which happened to be right after 9/11. I auditioned for lots of companies but nothing happened and I decided to come back to New York to freelance.
Suzanne Farrell hired me for five weeks in the Fall of 2002, for her Kennedy Center season. It was interesting and wonderful working with her. I had met her before at SAB and she’d also staged “Mozartiana” at PNB where I got to work with her very briefly. Working with her was an indescribable experience. She gives the gift of choreography, coming the closest to Balanchine as you can get – and is thorough in her coaching.
I also admired her artistic vision and bravery for putting on the bill a lovely piece of modern dance choreography by a dance maker without household name recognition – Anthony Morgan. His work to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, “A Farewell to Music” was modern, barefoot and a really good piece. She found out about him since part of our rehearsal period was spent at Florida State University where he was on the faculty.
In all, we did “Who Cares? in which I was cast as a demi-soloist; “Divertimento No. 15" where she cast me in the “tall girl” solo – which I loved doing and for which I was grateful that she saw beyond typecasting for this part; and interestingly, in the same part I did for the SAB Workshop in “Raymonda Variations.”
So how did you get to OBT?
While freelancing was essentially a good experience, I originally thought that I’d be able to pick and choose what work I’d accept but found out that I actually needed to take just about everything that came my way. Lots of “Nutcracker” guestings! I was beginning to re-think my career path, when one day I ran into Christopher Stowell on the streets of New York. I didn’t think that he even really knew who I was since when I was at PNB we barely knew each other, perhaps just a couple of exchanges of “hello.” But he stopped me, knew who I was, asked what I was doing and mentioned that he had applied for the position of Artistic Director at OBT and if he got it, might I be interested in dancing there?
He called me when he got the job and I decided to do it. I came in summer of 2003 and was very happy coming back to the West Coast. I really feel at home and am comfortable in Portland.
Being in a smaller ballet company has been good for you – more performing opportunities for example?
I wish there were more performing opportunities for us all! More touring... I love the OBT repertory. I’ve gotten to do a half-dozen dream roles: “Serenade” and “Concerto Barocco” for example. Things have grown nicely. Audiences are being built – they have become more knowledgeable and interested and real fans have developed, some who come to several shows to see multiple casts.
Our readers are typically interested in hearing about the “care and feeding” of pointe shoes. What kind do you use and how to you “keep” them?
I use Freed, size 6X and my maker is “club” although I’m stockpiling them right now, as while he’s not retiring, his shoes are so popular that his delivery time is incredibly long.
I ask for the sides to be cut down, the vamps a little longer, a 2.5mm insole, and a cotton drawstring (most have elastic), and an extra flat tip.
I flatten the box, bend the shank right off at the feet of the graphic of the ballerina that is inside, pull out the back nail, cut off the tongue, and put in some glue at the tip. I use one elastic crossband rather than two. Other than that, I sew on the ribbons and in a total of about 10 minutes from start to finish, I’m ready to go!
I use several dozen pairs per season and plenty are ordered for us for each season. This is great! At Alberta Ballet, we were limited to three pairs per week and that was a little challenging.
What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of ballet?
My hobbies tend to be sedentary! I read newspapers, always do the New York Times crossword puzzles, and I read a lot. I like to follow the news.
An earlier OBT program profile has a great picture of you holding cards in fourth position relevé. Tell us about this...
That’s right! I love to play poker, although it’s become hard to get company members or OBT staff to play with me as they think I’m a card shark. I only play for nickels, dimes, and quarters.
Back to my first question – What do you like about ballet?
I like being onstage and performing. I’m shy and introverted by nature and being onstage allows me to surpass inhibitions – it gives me a freedom and power not experienced anywhere else. I can sense the audience’s attention and interest and this is very empowering.
One of the first times I felt this was when I was in Kent’s “Carmina Burana” at PNB and experiencing the power of all those artists on stage was nearly overwhelming.
I find that the discipline of ballet, its regimentation and structure, gives freedom. And it’s both power and control. Class itself is meditative, soothing and comforting. Being part of a company – the individual partners and relationships – and going through a shared experience together with like-minded people generates an incredible feeling. I would dread giving up that aspect.
And in thinking more about your question, the truth is that it's the entire experience of dance
and art as a lifestyle that propels me forward in this career. The performing aspect of it is a major factor, of course – as are the other elements we talked about – but there's more. The physical and psychological satisfaction of using my body as my tool is one of the greatest gifts of being a dancer. Despite the constant fatigue and injuries, our bodies were made to be used and I am happiest when I am using mine in such a beautiful way. It's hard sometimes to keep a hold of this concept when slogging away at the barre everyday, but as ballet dancers we not only create art WITH our bodies, but our bodies ARE the art itself, in its own way. These thoughts do form a big part of why I dance.
Any concluding comments or things that you’d like to impart?
Attention to detail is important. Subtleties, nuances are too often overlooked by other dancers. Placement, focus, the tilt of the head, the placing of the hands, the feet are all critical. You grab the audience not just with movement but with stillness – the pauses are important, as are the connections between steps.
“Apollo” is such a ballet – no story, but there are insinuations and inferences that can be made to the audience.
Pay attention to the steps and the detail in the steps and you will have all the information you need in order to perform the ballet. I’ve found that Francia and Suzanne are great for this.
I’m very self-directed. I watch other performances and performing and consider myself one of my most influential teachers! Lastly, less is more...
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