Last year, Gavin Larsen, former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, introduced us to the world of auditions – and how a dancer makes the transition into the professional world. Now, she continues her story with this riveting tale of her first performance as a professional dancer. Thanks, Gavin, for sharing your story with The Portland Ballet!
My first few weeks as a professional dancer were spent in rehearsal for a series of summer performances. They were held at an outdoor theater on the breathtakingly beautiful grounds of the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, WA.
As I described in my last blog post, the rehearsal period was pretty brutal on me: endless hours in pointe shoes and learning more choreography at one time than I’d ever had to do before equaled greater fatigue than I had previously thought possible. I became familiar with ice buckets, aching legs, and the bliss of letting my body sag into the couch at the end of a day. But I got stronger, tougher, and more acclimated to the life of a corps girl as the weeks went on, and by the time the performances arrived, I was excited and ready to make my professional debut.
(Photo: Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery – courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle)
The program we were presenting at Ste. Michelle that summer was excerpts from Swan Lake and a ballet by Kent Stowell called Over the Waves. I had understudied a “short girl” corps spot in Over the Waves and was, of course, a swan in Swan Lake. The setting for these performances was incredibly scenic (the stage looked out over an enormous, sloping expanse of lawn with trees in the distance, mountain ranges beyond, and vineyards on either side) while also fairly… unusual. Our dressing “rooms” were curtained-off areas in the winery’s barrel room, adjacent to the tasting room, and to get to and from the stage we had to walk through the barrel storage area—which was concrete, chilled, and very aromatic from the wine. From there, we trudged outside and up some rickety stairs to get “backstage”, which was in nearly full view of the audience. Needless to say, the atmosphere was casual, jovial, and felt a bit like going to summer camp without the campfire songs. I packed my dance bag each day stocked full of every conceivable amenity I might need—water, food, extra tape, extra warmers, waterproof booties, a blanket to stretch on, gloves (it got really cold). It was as if I was going to a third-world country and never knew what I might encounter. I would have taken bear spray if I had any, and I definitely did take bug repellent.
Dress rehearsal went fine, from my point of view, and the next morning I went to class feeling the anticipation of opening night. After class, we were to have a two-hour rehearsal for the night’s program, beginning with Over the Waves. As I was only an understudy for that ballet, I stood in the back of the studio ready to mark the part I covered. The ballet master stopped the music, came over to me, and said, “Gavin, this is where you enter.” Huh? This wasn’t the section I learned — this was the “tall girls” part!
“Well, you’re learning new spot,” the ballet master told me. Um….what?!
Yup. A girl in a different section of the ballet had thrown her back out during dress rehearsal, and for some reason I was being put into her place for opening night’s show, which was now only a few hours away. Not only had I not learned this particular section, I had barely even WATCHED it in rehearsals, needing to save as much brain and memory power as I could for my own parts. What the tall girls did was completely different and utterly unrelated to my own “short girl” part. Now I had to learn, essentially, an entirely new ballet.
They began to teach me my new part, one step at a time, with an amazing amount of patience. The rehearsal went into “spillover,” which meant everyone was suddenly earning overtime. I don’t recall how long we went, but it wasn’t too long — because although I got the entire ballet crammed into my head, I knew it wasn’t very secure there.
(Photos: Gavin Larsen with Paul Destrooper and Kent Stowell in rehearsal – photos by Blaine Truitt Covert)
The girl whose part I was stepping into was amazing — she drove me home after rehearsal, while I ceaselessly reviewed the steps in my head and out loud, asking her for prompts when I hit a blank. She made me lunch while I kept reviewing, and we kept at it during the hour’s drive out to the winery. I tested my memory by quizzing myself on what came right before or right after various moments in the ballet. I knew the only way I’d be able to manage this was by keeping it in my head, running an endless loop tape until the curtain went up.
At the winery, I tried to stay calm, but nerves were creeping up on me. Anytime someone spoke to me, it was as if their voice was coming from far away– I could barely hear anything but “sauté, pas de chat, step cross lunge, pose B+ hold- 7, 8, 9, kneel…”. Someone wished me “merde” and my eyes filled with tears of anxiety. After putting on my makeup, I found an empty space in the barrel room to go over the ballet one more time and hit a blank spot—I panicked, quivering—and realized I’d have to keep myself calm in order to think straight and get through this.
The ballet started, and something took over—I suddenly had a confidence that surprised me. My first step onstage was a humungous sauté arabesque out of the fourth wing, by myself (each girl came out on her own from the four corners of the stage), and I relished the moment to say, “Here I am!” The other corps girls onstage with me were whispering cues throughout and sort of “nudging” me into the right spots if I started to go astray.
(Photo: Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery stage – courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle)
My brain was running a mile a minute, but the previous five hours of intense learning had worked. Although I couldn’t stop thinking, I did know what steps came next, and next, and next. I danced big, fully and with energy, knowing that even if I made a mistake, I’d already succeeded. The only thing I could do wrong would be to hold back.
I remember the finale of the ballet the best, because the music was so rousing, the steps so exhilarating, and the girl next to me in line had to almost shout for me to hear her: “Sailor step! Crossovers! Lunge! Paddle turn and kneel!” I was so happy to be nearly done with the ballet that I thought I would explode.
And then it WAS done, and I’d made it and not even ruined anything! The relief was immense, and finally I could hear clearly and see straight again. People congratulated me on my professional debut, which I had totally forgotten about—my first time on stage as a professional dancer was not anything like I had imagined or anticipated. I’d rehearsed for weeks, only to do my first performance in a part I learned in the last five hours!
(Photo: The Portland Ballet dancers prepare backstage to dance Swan Lake – photo by Blaine Truitt Covert)
But it wasn’t over yet. Swan Lake was still to come, after a short intermission. I raced back to the dressing room/barrel room/makeshift tent where our white tutus were lined up for us to pull on as fast as possible. Towels and tarps lined the runway from stage to dressing room in an attempt to keep us from tracking mud onto all that white tulle.
I tore my hair out of its high bun and whipped it back into the low swan hairdo, someone helped me pin on the feathered headpiece, I jumped into my tutu, and with a deep breath, took my place in line to enter in Swan Lake: arabesque hop, emboite, arabesque, emboite, arabesque, emboite…