Why I Dance

August 23, 2009

A principal dancer at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Gavin Larsen brings a wonderful plasticity, musical sensitivity, and acting chops to all her roles. From
her touching turn as the lovelorn Helena in Christopher Stowell’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream to her portrait of a young dancer’s awakening in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, she draws the audience into her world.

Larsen received her early training from Dick Andros and Francis Patrelle in NYC. During her teenage years, she attended the School of American Ballet and spent summers at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She danced with PNB for seven years and then went to Alberta Ballet when it was directed by Mikko Nissinen, whom she credits with giving her the classical coaching that helped her become the ballerina she is today. She also performed for one season as a soloist with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Six years ago she joined OBT. Dancing lead roles there in works by Balanchine, Robbins, Wheeldon, Kudelka, Kent Stowell, and artistic director Christopher Stowell, Larsen feels she has found her niche. In addition to performing, Gavin teaches for the School of OBT.


I was an 11-year-old student at the School of American Ballet and had been cast as a bug in New York City Ballet’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We child-bugs had been meticulously rehearsed and at last I was onstage, standing in my bug pose. Hearing the orchestra play that soul-stirring, heart-wrenching overture for the first time, I thought there could be no better place in the world than right there, right then. The music was so elating, I thought I might actually lift off and take flight. Thank goodness I had steps to dance that gave me an outlet for that magnificent feeling.


I’ve danced Midsummer many times since then, in versions by three different choreographers. I’ve worked my way through the roles from little bug to adult butterfly, to fairy, courtier, and finally to Helena and Titania. The ballet never fails to move me nearly to tears with its beauty, joy, humor, and humanity. While it’s not the only ballet with such a perfect unity of music, movement, and intellect, it’s one that shows me why I dance.


I have always been a performer. I have (very fuzzy) early memories of demanding to “put on a show” for my parents’ dinner party guests, prancing and twirling around the coffee table to whatever music happened to be on the stereo, finishing with a grand exit through the double doors. Those childhood performances were the first way I found to satisfy the weird combination of shyness and show-off that shapes my person­ality. The theatricality made it feel safe; the music made me feel exuberant and free; and I didn’t have to look anyone in the eye.


Growing up in the regimented world of ballet training, I discovered that having a structure from which to soar gave me even more freedom. Classroom combinations could be as joyous as my improvisational living room dances, if the pianist played something stirring. The incredible largo from Handel’s Xerxes could give me the strength to hold up my leg forever.


Dancing for me is harder than it used to be, but the rewards are so much richer. As a child, my instincts took charge, but after years of discovery I am driven by more than the thrill of moving and expanding outside the boundaries of my own skin. I treasure the bond that links all dancers with the unspoken understanding that comes from going through tough challenges individually, yet in the company of others. I am humbled and proud to take my place in the line of those who have gone before me, passing those beautiful pieces of art from dancer to dancer. I need the physical freedom that comes from honing my body day after day, and the awareness that grew from nursing myself through injuries both major and minor.


I understand now just how much a dancer can say without even opening her mouth. I am a quiet person, but when I dance, I never feel shy. I have always felt the power I hold as a dan­cer to command attention without demanding it, to say something meaningful to anyone who watches closely. I love that dance rewards the viewer who looks for nuances, because it has rewarded me in that way for so long, and I know it always will.



Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy OBT