From Stage To Page, Gavin Larsen Devoted To 'Beautiful Life' Of Ballet

Jun 3, 2021

Gavin Larsen outside her Asheville home.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Ten years ago, Natalie Portman won the Academy and Golden Globe best actress awards for her starring turn in “Black Swan.” There was, however, at least one critic of the film.

“It’s just a horror flick. It has nothing to do with ballet,” said Gavin Larsen, whose career in ballet has been far more quiet, far less dramatic. Today, in her late 40s, she teaches at the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville.

“Part of my mission is to dispel the myths about what it means to be a ballet dancer, and to propagate the truth about how beautiful a life in ballet is,” she said.

Her position with the conservatory brought Larsen to Asheville at the beginning of 2017. Her move was like all the others she has made since early adulthood—all in the service of ballet. Dancers with conservatory are showcasing Larsen’s teachings June 4 and 5 in performances of “La Sylphide” at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

“Teaching is like the fuel to the fire,” she said. “It kept me really fresh and kept me thinking about the artform.”

Larsen grew up in what she recalls as a rough neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan. Her father taught English literature and her mother was a book editor, and Larsen said they encouraged her singular focus on classical ballet.

She spent her teens studying at the School of American Ballet, the educational bedrock founded by George Ballanchine. Personal relationships were almost as out of the question as attending college.

“(We were) there to learn about something that was historically important and we were part of a lineage of dancers training in this way, following Ballachine, following a Russian tradition,” she recalled. “It gives you a sense of purpose and responsibility to carry on something that’s larger than you.

Larsen was only 17 when she was hired into the corps of Pacific Northwest Ballet, but she spent seven years with the Seattle company without moving into more prominent roles, so she left to take her chances auditioning elsewhere.

“I don’t have a huge ego and I didn’t think I’m this fabulous diva, but I was like ‘I’m good, I can dance and I have a track record now,” she said. “I just had this crazy combination of stubbornness, stoicism and naivete that someone was going to jump to hire me.”

Larsen danced for seven years with Oregon Ballet Theater, in Portland, before injuries compelled her to retire and transition, at age 35, from the dance floor into a teaching position with the company. Even before then, she began writing about dance, both about her own and other dancers’ experiences for Dance Magazine. The University Press of Florida recently published her dance memoir, titled “Being a Ballerina.”

Larsen said she was motivated to dispel negative myths about ballet and that the scant personal revelations in her book came at the behest of her editor.

“I’m a very private person. I always have been— very introverted, very shy,” she said. “As a dancer, I was always very loud on stage. I’m a small, quiet person off stage, but on stage, I was very, very loud, didn’t hold anything back. I thought ‘Gavin, if you’re going call yourself a writer, you can’t hold anything back there, either. Be as free on the page as you are on stage.’”

For the first time, Larsen is looking beyond ballet to broaden her experience.

“I haven’t taken class in years but I harbor this little hankering to get into those forms of dance I never did when I was in ballet, like tap, like swing dance, forms of ballroom,” she said. “My body is much different than it used to be, so I don’t know how well I can do any of that, but that urge to move is still very much alive inside me.”