by Martha Anne Toll
I have spent a large part of the last ten years writing a novel that, among other themes, has ballet as a central focus. (Three Muses is forthcoming September 20, 2022 from Regal House Press.) During the course of my writing, I tracked down every ballet novel I could find, and a number of other dance books as well. It seems to me that the field does not receive wide literary treatment, in part, I think, because ballet is such an extraordinarily difficult artform to render on the page.
Thus, I was overjoyed to discover Gavin Larsen’s Being a Ballerina, a gorgeously written and deeply informative memoir about the life of the dancer. Gavin manages to capture ballet’s relentless physical demands, while at the same time capturing the joy of the artform and the magic of performance. She also weaves in her own life experiences and insights with elegance and discernment.
After reaching out to Gavin over social media as a ballet fan girl, it has been my pleasure to get to know her over these past few months. I am so happy to share my interview with her, which we conducted by email.
Martha Anne Toll: For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of reading your book, can you tell us about your dance life?
Gavin Larsen: I was born and raised in New York City, where my childhood infatuation with all things ballet was sated. I started formal ballet training at about age eight, and at eleven began at the School of American Ballet, which is an extremely rigorous institution affiliated with New York City Ballet. I completed my training there by my senior year in high school, and at seventeen joined Pacific Northwest Ballet and launched my professional career.
After several seasons with PNB, I left in search of other opportunities to advance in my profession and grow artistically and technically. I subsequently spent a few years in Calgary, Alberta, with the Alberta Ballet, and then in New York with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. I ended up back on the west coast for the last seven years of my career as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. I retired in 2010 to focus on teaching and writing about dance, though I did continue doing some contemporary dance performances for a short while post-retirement.
MAT: You discuss in the book how you came to writing. For our readers who have not read your book, could you please elaborate here?
GL: Very shortly after I retired, I started to feel a sense of panic—my entire life’s work, my entire being, existed only in memory, photos, and a few videos. That’s the tragic beauty of dance; it disappears as soon as it’s created.
But it was more than the performances that made a dancing life so special—it was the tiny things that make up a dancer’s core and her place in the world. So, I started to write down, almost in desperation, as many episodes, fragments of memories, conversations, and snapshots of time that I could. I did not have a goal in mind other than capturing my effervescent life before it faded from my memory.
Eventually, I had several essay-like pieces that began to resemble the patches of a quilt. I played around with stringing them together, thinking of forming an overall picture of the dancing life, but I saw there were a lot of big empty holes, periods of time that I had not explored in writing, and areas of the dancer’s journey that I’d skipped. So, I started trying to fill those in to make a more comprehensive illustration of not just my own dancing life, but that of the legions of us whose stories are so similar, yet so unique.
MAT: Dance is more than a full-time job. How did you write at all while you were dancing?
GL: Yes, dance is more than a full-time job! Which is why most of my writing occurred post-retirement. While I was dancing, I had very little emotional room for anything else, as I write about in my book.
MAT: Dance is, by definition, ethereal and momentary. How do you think about getting dance on the page, since writing is such a different medium?
GL: That ethereal and fleeting quality of dance is exactly why I felt so compelled to try to capture it on the page. I felt that was the only way that I could do justice, to honor, the magnificence and, I think, importance of living one’s life inside the world of dance. I didn’t have the tools of other art forms, like video or film or photography, but I did have (it turned out) an ease and knack for writing. Which is funny, because in spoken conversation I often feel at a loss for the right words to express myself!
Writing my dance life, and therefore illustrating the entirety of what it means to follow the silent, invisible, yet relentlessly strong pull of the dance muse, has been very satisfying. I found I could combine evocative prose with play-by-play description, marry musings with factual information, and ponder my own experiences while instructing the reader about the nuts and bolts of everyday life.
MAT: There are many dance biographies, and some dance novels, but very few, if any (to my eye) books written by dancers that does what yours does. Do you have dance books you would like to call out for us?
GL: Yes, there are very few dancer-written books that are anything more than a memoir or biography. The dance book that I can’t say got me hooked on the concept of the ballet life (because I was already hooked by the time I read it, age twelve), but was totally fascinating and very much shaped my understanding of a dancer’s mind, was Toni Bentley’s Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal. Toni Bentley was a corps de ballet member of New York City Ballet for many years and wrote this book in mostly diary format over the course of one season with the company. Her book, like mine, combines the intrigue of daily life with musings about philosophical concepts relating to art, movement, relationships, and identity.
MAT: Tell us about your teaching life.
GL: I first felt a compulsion to teach while I was about mid-career. I was with Alberta Ballet at the time and had just started to get some major roles. The coaching I received in Alberta was stellar, so along with the advancement of my artistry and technique, I also gained a new sense of confidence and empowerment. I remember one day in the studio I was watching another dancer work on a step and suddenly saw what she was doing wrong—and how to explain to her how to fix it. That was the first time I felt like I really knew what I was doing, even though I’d been a professional dancer for almost a decade at that point.
Shortly after that, I injured myself pretty badly and was out for a few months. I dislocated my patella [kneecap] in rehearsal and had to sit out several performances, including a weeks-long tour. I approached the director of the Alberta Ballet School to express my interest in trying to teach. He was lovely and mentored me, allowing me to observe several of the best teachers in the school while explaining what they did that made them so effective and how I should think about what I had to offer students myself.
I first taught a few variations classes, which are an easy way to get one’s feet wet as a teacher because you don’t have to develop exercises, but simply teach existing choreography and then critique the dancers. Eventually, I did teach technique classes as well. When I moved on from Alberta, I would guest teach from time to time, and at Oregon Ballet Theatre I took on some regular classes. The OBT school director was another incredibly talented pedagogue whose methods I emulate to this day.
When I stopped performing full time, I was assigned a full load of classes in the OBT School and have essentially turned to teaching and coaching as my bread and butter ever since.
I adore teaching professional dancers, but teach all levels—except young, young children. I also have taught adult recreational dancers extensively and find that demographic extremely rewarding to work with.
MAT: Does training young dancers affect your writing life?
GL: No, not really. If anything, writing affects the way I train young dancers. If I was only a teacher, I don’t think I would be so introspective about my process of imparting knowledge and guiding students. Writing, particularly for dance journals, involves many interviews with others in the field, so I’m continually talking to teachers, directors, students, professional dancers, and people involved in adjacent ways to the dance industry. That keeps me on my toes, self-analyzing, and gives me a much needed and valuable perspective on my own non-writing work.
MAT: Bloom supports and features writers who published their first work when they were over 40. What has it felt like for you?
GL: It feels wonderful to know I have made an impact in my field even after leaving the performance aspect of dance behind. There is no way I could have written and published my book before I retired from the stage. I was accumulating material for this book over all those years, although I didn’t realize that I was collecting the building blocks of a book. And now, to be published for the first time at 46, gives me hope that I won’t run out of ideas too soon!
MAT: How did you arrive at the structure for your book?
GL: The structure developed because—to be perfectly honest—writing in small chunks was easiest for me. I didn’t feel capable of, or interested in, crafting a long-form piece of writing. I felt drawn to these short, essay-like “snapshots,” which is what I first called the shortest interstitial pieces in my book.
Even when it appeared that I was accumulating enough material for a bigger piece of work, I still wanted the effect of the book to be like an Impressionist painting, or a quilt, or a collage: I wanted to show an overall arc of the dancer’s life through the small moments, the fleeting, flashing, everyday occurrences and the equally fleeting yet more momentous experiences and feelings that highlighted the path. So, I was committed to keeping the chapters short—and also, I believed that short, episodic chapters were a way to keep the reader’s interest. I thought non-dancers would lose interest if I ran on and on when recounting experiences.
When University Press of Florida was interested in publishing it, they asked for a more traditional format. They wanted a more linear arrangement of the chapters, more of it told in my own voice, and a stricter adherence to chronology. I resisted, but ended up rearranging and adding some first person explanatory introductions to some of the third-person chapters. I think it worked out well and perhaps brought more warmth to the book.
MAT: We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.
GL: The publication process was long, but isn’t that true for most books? As a complete novice in the literary and publishing worlds, I was very naive about the path to publication. I did all my self-education through internet searches. From reading blogs, newsletters, websites, etc., I came to discover that to get a publisher to even look at your manuscript, you had to have an agent. So, I started researching how to write query letters and looked up lists of agents who might have an interest in dance, memoir, or just the arts in general. I spent at least a couple of years sending query letters and fine-tuning my pitch. I did get several replies of interest, including a few agents who requested the manuscript, but those who did reply all said they loved the writing but could not see the market for a ballet memoir written by someone who was not a superstar.
Through a mutual friend, I became connected with Mindy Aloff, who at the time was an editor at the University Press of Florida. Mindy graciously read the manuscript and devoted a significant amount of time to critiquing it. She gave me frank feedback that was devastating, but ultimately extraordinarily helpful. Once I’d revised enough, she sent it on to the acquisitions editor at UPF, who then began the process of getting editorial board approval, peer review, more revisions on my part, more peer review…. and then a contract. Looking back on it, I can’t believe how much the book evolved, but I do believe it’s better for this process.
MAT: What writers/dancers do you admire and what writers have influenced your work?
GL: Toni Bentley is a dancer and writer who greatly influenced not only my book, but my perception of the soul and being of an artist. Her book offered so much more than a simple recounting of her days as a member of the corps de ballet of the company under the directorship of the world’s greatest choreographer, George Balanchine. Her observations came through the details she described, the fragments of conversations and thoughts passing through her head at various points of each day. That format is what I was going for in my book as well. She expressed, through these musings, the soul of a dancer.
MAT: What advice do you have for debut writers?
GL: Unfortunately, my advice is to brand yourself. I was given a heads-up to this fact a few years before my book was even finished. I spoke with a woman who was at the time an editor at a large publishing house (and who was a college friend of my sister’s and generously agreed to read a few chapters of my manuscript and offer advice). The two biggest pieces of advice she had for me were “get an agent,” and “up your social media presence.” I tried, unsuccessfully, to do the former, and energetically jumped into the latter.
As for the actual writing process, I’d say to try to find the balance between sticking to your guns and compromising. Hold tight to the elements that define your mission, but be able to step back and sincerely entertain others’ perspectives. And remember that any revision can always be re-revised back to your original.
MAT: What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?
GL: I am entirely focused on freelance dance journalism right now. I have an assignment for Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, as well as for the Oregon Ballet Theatre Playbill program notes. Longer term, I’m just mulling over ideas. I also want to see what my book would look like as a screenplay and am slowly making inquiries in that direction.
MAT: It’s hard to avoid asking about the pandemic. What has it been like for you and your writing and dance life?
GL: The pandemic has not affected my daily existence all that much. My writing work for the dance publications didn’t stop because there was so much new material to write about related to Covid-19. The dance community needed to share information and find common ground more than ever. I think the pandemic bonded us in this profession in a way that was needed pre-Covid but wasn’t happening because of the fast pace of everything. The reliance on dance media during 2020 and 2021 has only grown, and the ways we’re connecting have deepened. I wrote about nascent topics like how to maximize the benefits of taking classes in your home, how to best present yourself in a video audition, and how to stay motivated when you’re separated from your fellow dancers.
The school where I teach did shift immediately to Zoom classes, but I continued to go the studio every day to conduct the classes from there. I also began teaching online private and group classes, so for a period of several months I was teaching seven days a week. The online privates and my weekly Zoom class for adult recreational dancers have continued—core students love them so much they wanted me to continue offering them even though their local studios have reopened for in-person classes. So, every Sunday I teach a group of adults in their living rooms and kitchens in Oregon, California, New York, and North Carolina. I guess I’ll keep doing so as long as they want me to!
MAT: Anything else you want to add?
GL: One of the most startling things about having this book published has been grasping the concept of it really being out in the world and knowing that people are reading it. So many total strangers now have stood beside me in class, walked down the street with me and my dad, had donuts with us, gone on my audition tour and performed the Nutcracker pas de deux with me. They know all about my boyfriend and my cat and have pictured me sobbing my guts out. I am such a private person that as I was writing, if I had allowed myself to think about other people reading my work, I would have had to stop. But now, I just have to put that anxiety aside. And trust that baring my soul on the page is no different from doing so on stage.
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her books reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.