Transcript, Episode 60: Liam Scarlett’s Death, Building a Better Theater Industry, and Gavin Larsen

[Jump to Gavin Larsen interview]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And we are, once again, recording in a moment where there is so much happening in the mainstream news. On Tuesday, we had the momentous verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. And just before that, a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager. It is a lot to process. Please take care.

We also wanted to note that this episode itself is going to be heavy. It features two segments discussing abuse in the dance and theater world, sexual abuse and verbal and emotional abuse. So proceed with caution. And just be gentle with yourselves—I mean, all the time, but especially right now.

So, today we’ll be talking about the death of choreographer Liam Scarlett, and the conversations it has ignited in the dance community. We will discuss Scott Rudin stepping back from Broadway, and how we can heed performer Karen Olivo’s called to build a theater industry with more integrity. We’ll talk about the new company Ballet22, which is working to ungender the pointe shoe. And then we’ll have our interview with Gavin Larsen, the writer and educator and former professional dancer, whose memoir, Becoming a Ballerina, is out on Tuesday. Gavin’s book touches on a lot of the themes we hit on frequently on the podcast, like how to make ballet environments more compassionate and the extreme emotional demands placed on ballet dancers. So it was illuminating to hear her perspective as both a former dancer and a thoughtful observer of ballet culture on all of those issues.

Before we get started, here are a few friendly reminders. Don’t forget, first of all, to subscribe to this podcast on your listening platform of choice, just to make sure it shows up in your feed every week. Also, give us a follow on social media, where we post about a 50-50 mix of up-to-the-minute news and take-a-few-minutes-with-this think pieces. We’re on Instagram @the.dance.edit and Twitter @dance_edit.

All right, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is brief this week because the headlines were dominated by the stories we’re going to get to later in our roundtable segments. Go for it, Courtney.

Courtney Escoyne:
So, at least starting on a more cheerful note: the programming for the 2021 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has been announced. It’s the first hybrid in-person and an online summer festival in the Pillow’s history. And it will feature new productions by the likes of Dorrance Dance and Archie Burnett, as well as outdoor site-specific productions, including Eastern Woodland Dances, which will focus on indigenous performance traditions in the area and its diaspora, a new work utilizing augmented reality from Brian Brooks and a premiere from Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born. After an online gala on June 12th, the in-person festival run June 30th to August 29th, with streaming available through September 23rd. And there’s also going to be some online-only Pillow exclusive streams that’ll be happening, like the US premiere of Crystal Pite’s most recent work for Paris Opéra Ballet.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yay for the return of the Pillow. And if you want to hear more about how that all came to be, go back and revisit episode 56—we have a great interview with their director, Pamela Tatge.

Cadence Neenan:
Britt Stewart, the first black female pro on “Dancing with the Stars,” recently launched a nonprofit to help support young dancers of color. Her organization, Share the Movement, aims to increase diversity in the professional dance community by providing financial, educational, and inspirational support to young BIPOC dancers. And though Stewart will serve as the organization’s president, its board is a regular who’s who of choreographers, arts leaders, and pros from across the world. Be sure to check it out at sharethemovementnow.org. Big congrats to Britt and her team.

Courtney Escoyne:
And celebrity conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been named the next director of music at the Paris Opéra, a post he will hold concurrently with his directorship at the LA Philharmonic, which was contracted for the end of the 2025–26 season. Though he’s primarily known as a symphonic conductor, in an interview with the New York Times, he expressed an eagerness to get to conduct for the Paris Opéra Ballet. I’m so curious to see how that goes, because conducting for a symphony or an opera is so different from conducting for a ballet.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Very different things. Yeah, he did say that he went to ballets growing up as a way to learn how to see the music, which sounds promising. So we’ll see.

Cadence Neenan:
Recently, a performance by Sydney-based dance troupe 101 Doll Squadron at the official commissioning of an Australian naval base drew relatively intense ire online. After a short clip from the troop’s performance was posted on Twitter, 101 Doll Squadron began receiving public scrutiny and the team of dancers closed their social media accounts out of fear of further attack. In a statement, the troupe said that their brief performance was deliberately taken out of context online, and that the key elements of their performance drew on culturally significant symbols to represent blessings, the waves of the ocean and more. They said in a quote, “It was meant to bring an informal sense of celebration, a gift from one of our community groups to open a modern ship with a modern dance form.”

Courtney Escoyne:
In the Heights, the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout musical, will open the 2021 Tribeca Festival, formerly known as the Tribeca Film Festival, this summer, with the premiere event happening at the United Palace theater in Washington Heights, the New York City neighborhood in which the musical is set. The film festival will also have simultaneous open-air screenings happening across the five boroughs, which is a first in the festival’s history. I feel like Lin has to be excited that he’s going to the premiere for this in his neighborhood.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, coming home for the premiere. I mean, it was sort of the only place for it happen, right? It feels very right.

Cadence Neenan:
Robert Fletcher, the prolific costume and set designer for both stage and screen, recently passed away at age 98. Fletcher worked with countless opera and ballet companies and on projects alongside dance luminaries like Jerome Robbins and Lincoln Kirstein, as well as designing the costumes for the original Broadway productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Walking Happy. Fletcher received three Tony Award nominations, as well as a Drama Desk Award nomination, and later received the Career Achievement Award from the Costume Designer’s Guild.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Talk about range: He also did the costumes for the first Star Trek movies. A pretty incredible career.

So, in our first roundtable segment this week, we want to talk about some news that truly shocked the dance world when it broke over the weekend. Choreographer Liam Scarlett, who was formerly an artist in residence with the Royal Ballet, died on Friday at age 35. And the cause of his death is not known—we want to emphasize that right up front. We have very little information about what actually happened.

Scarlett, of course, rose to prominence swiftly in the 2010s. He earned a ton of critical acclaim for his ballets. But in recent years, he had faced accusations of sexual misconduct. In 2019, The Royal suspended Scarlett and launched an independent investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior toward Royal Ballet School students. And though that investigation “found no matters to pursue,” the company still ended its association with Scarlett. And then Queensland Ballet soon followed suit, and several other companies canceled planned performances of his work. Last week, the Royal Danish Ballet canceled its upcoming production of Scarlett’s Frankenstein, due to his “unacceptable behavior” towards members of its staff during rehearsals in 2018 and 2019. And then news of Scarlett’s death came shortly after that announcement.

So, this is an utterly tragic and very complicated story, and it has provoked some equally complicated reactions. Again, we do not know how or why Scarlett died, but we’d like to talk about some of the responses to his death, and how they relate to ongoing dance-world debates about abusive behavior and cancel culture.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and again, to re-emphasize what Margaret has said, the cause of death, details surrounding Scarlett’s death have not been announced. That information has not been released. However, given the timing with the cancellation of the Royal Danish Theatre production, it seems to be a widespread assumption that suicide may have been what happened. And alongside that, people who are either saying that outright or implying it, oftentimes they’re putting that hand in hand with decrying cancel culture for the death of this very young human being. There a number of, frankly, prominent choreographers who have said they think cancel culture is to blame for this—that whatever allegations there were, were taken too far, he was blacklisted. So they are essentially blaming cancel culture for this. Others who are observing this reaction happening are rightly pointing out that this implicitly puts the blame on victims who came forward with allegations, and also implicitly puts the onus on victims of allegations and other cases to remain silent.

I think that Theresa Ruth Howard posted something really beautiful and well-written on Instagram, talking about, can we hold space for the grief of the people who are the family of Liam Scarlett or the friends of Liam Scarlett, holding space for their grief without throwing the alleged victims under the bus? There seems to be—oftentimes, particularly in this kind of case, we don’t hold space for the multiplicity of any given human being. They tend to be painted as either a monster or a saint, without really recognizing that each person’s experience of this person is going to be different. And so, how do we honor that without blaming victims? And how do we honor that without being unkind and un-empathetic to the people who have lost someone? It is extremely complex.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. Courtney, you mentioned the post that Theresa Ruth Howard made on the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet Instagram page. And for me, the quote that really stood out in that post was, “For those who are Liam’s friends, we extend our condolences. For those who bear wounds, we wish you healing and peace.” And I think for me, that really captured kind of that dichotomy you were talking about, that we have to hold space for both of these experiences.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And it’s—Chloe Angyal also had a post that sort of summarized this complexity nicely. It’s of course partly about the multiplicity of the person and people’s interactions with the person, but it’s also just the ability to hold multiple ideas in our mind simultaneously.

On the one hand, we can and should mourn the loss of a promising dance talent. We should advocate for better mental health support and care for dance artists. We should look for better paths to rehabilitation for those who have suffered professional consequences for past actions, paths that are rooted in justice rather than simply erasure. That’s important. We should call for greater transparency around how dance organizations make decisions, especially punitive decisions. That’s all valid.

But as you’re both saying, we cannot let those ideas crowd out the voices of victims of abuse in ballet, because those voices are only just beginning to be heard after generations of suppression.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I think every tribute post that you see that does not recognize the complexity of situation, that is just in tribute to this person—intentionally or not, that does implicitly say to victims, “Your experience doesn’t matter as much as the caliber of work that this person did.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely. Another common problem in ballet, the sort of great white man problem. And people who are yelling about cancel culture, too, I think we should recognize that in deciding not to support Scarlett’s work—yes, some dance organizations were probably at least partly thinking about covering their own butts, but they were also making an effort to put dancers first, to protect their dancers and recognize the humanity of the artist as more important than the art itself. And that is progress. And all of these things can be true at once, and are true at once.

So it’s the kind of many-shades-of-gray situation that’s just profoundly uncomfortable. But I think if we’ve learned anything over this past year, it’s that you have to sit in that discomfort to grow. And the one clear-cut takeaway from all this is that it is so deeply sad. It is tragic from multiple angles.

So, our next roundtable segment actually concerns some news that broke the same day as Scarlett’s death. On Saturday, powerful producer Scott Rudin announced he would “step back from active participation” in his current Broadway shows, following a damning expose by The Hollywood Reporter in which staffers accused him of abusive behavior, which we talked about last episode. Rudin’s statement also followed performer Karen Olivo’s announcement late last week that they would not be returning to their starring role in Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. They pointedly cited the theater industry’s silence on the Rudin situation in their video. And for what it’s worth, Rudin also “stepped back” from his film and streaming commitments this week, since he’s a prominent Hollywood producer too.

This is all kind of a lot to digest, and we’ll talk a little more about how these events played out. But at the core of it all is this statement by Olivo: “I want a theater industry that matches my integrity.” How can we make that happen? How can we identify and fix the structures that allow for and even encourage abusive and discriminatory behavior?

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah, I think in looking as to how we can better the musical theater industry, a lot of people are arguing that Rudin stepping back from active participation isn’t enough, in part because it’s unclear exactly what that means. And many have pointed out that Rudin is just one of many abusive people on Broadway whose behavior has been tolerated. And that this small step probably won’t change that environment substantially.

There was a quote from a Broadway producer who spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of negative consequences saying, “We have been taught that we have to sacrifice for our art, but you can do work without creating a toxic environment.” And I think that’s really what’s important here: a lot of dancers, musical theater, artists, and just artists in general have been taught that we have to suffer for our art. But we do not have to suffer abuse for our art. Nobody has to suffer abuse to make great art. And that’s why we cannot continue to excuse these behaviors.

And that’s why I think right now, one of the things that seems the most important is transparency on the part of Rudin and his team. Actors’ Equity called for Rudin to release his staff and prior staff from nondisclosure agreements, saying that it would be an important first step in truly creating safe and harassment-free workplaces. And I think that that’s a first step, because there’s so much about this that’s still unclear.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think there is again, still a lot of fear, even outside of those NDAs, because as you pointed out, Cadence, Scott Rudin is not the only monster at the end of this book. And so the fear of, if I speak out about Scott Rudin, are other power players who haven’t been called out going to be able to ruin my career? That’s a very real and valid fear.

Also, it is worth noting, Scott Rudin is stepping back from day-to-day operations on existing musicals.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He’s still making money on them.

Courtney Escoyne:
There is no indication that he is giving up his financial stakes. And I would be willing to bet he will not be doing that. And as we have talked about a lot on this podcast, particularly in Broadway, everything comes back to capitalism. Everything comes back to bottom line and profits. So he is still going to very likely be making bank on his existing properties, and properties he has stakes in going forward as a producer, he will continue to make bank on.

The only way any of this changes is if we can essentially advocate, vote with our wallets, and divest from the kinds of producers who, yes, while they got results and have EGOTs, whatever, are also toxic to the industry. We have to divest from that. It’s not sustainable. It doesn’t make sense. And we are losing so many artists in the process.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Courtney, first of all, thank you for referencing the monster at the end of this book, because now I’m picturing Rudin as Grover and it just makes him so much less scary in a way that might actually be productive.

So let’s talk about fixing the system that creates an elevates abusive white men, in addition to sort of voting with our pocketbooks. TheaterMania ran an interesting piece last week, talking about this media trope that emerged in the Rudin coverage, with a few different writers saying there was a dearth of visionary leaders to fill Rudin’s place in theater—people who have the clout to actually get challenging, boundary-pushing shows made. This piece argued that actually those visionaries are everywhere. They’re just often denied entry to theater’s exclusive club because they’re not rich straight cis white men. So getting those unheard voices heard, giving these innovative people a seat at the table, that also seems like a critical next step in creating a more humane theater culture.

Although I do think it’s worth noting—writer Rebecca Ritzel pointed this out on Twitter, hi Rebecca, if you’re listening—the initial statements about the lack of visionary leaders, they were actually referring to leaders on the business side of things, not leaders on the creative or the nonprofit side. But if we are in fact short on good, innovative, humane business-side leaders in theater too, that’s also a problem to address.

Cadence Neenan:
I think maybe if there aren’t people who are similar to Scott Rudin in the business side of Broadway, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Karen Olivo talked a lot in an interview about why they were leaving Moulin Rouge!, about how Broadway is “a structure that doesn’t believe in the art anymore. It believes in profit.” So Courtney, you were talking about capitalism and how at the end of the day, everything comes back to bank on Broadway. Maybe we need some change in the business perspective on Broadway. Maybe we need to reconnect Broadway with its art and its grace and its humanity. I think if we are going to rid the business side of Broadway of abusive men, I would like some people who don’t look or sound or think like Scott Rudin, in that case.

Courtney Escoyne:
Hear, hear.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. And Olivo said—this is an interview she did with American Theatre magazine—she sort of recognized that for-profit theater probably isn’t going away anytime soon. But she also says, why not invest further in non-profit models that prioritize inclusivity and equity and creativity over money?

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s also worth noting that a lot of the nonprofit theater models that exist, oftentimes some of those are pointed to as being, “Oh, this is where the stuff that does end up on Broadway gets its start.” But there’s actually a reality there, where there are certain nonprofit theaters that have that reputation. But the fact is, is that these really ambitious works wouldn’t get the funding that they were getting if the people investing in them didn’t have the expectation that this could make the move to for-profit theater. That is the mindset going into it. Theater works that started at a nonprofit theater that don’t necessarily have that aim, don’t really care about making it to Broadway—if those are ambitious works that take a lot of money up front to get started, oftentimes they don’t get funded, they don’t get started, because there is that disconnect. We are talking about systemic change.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Systemic change—systemic change is the only answer.

Okay. After all of that heavy-on-the-head, heavy-on-the-heart news, in our last roundtable segment today, we’re going to talk about a story that is, thank goodness, full of hope and progress. Pointe magazine recently profiled a new ballet company, Ballet22, which is showcasing men on pointe. And of course, other companies—most notably, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—have featured men on pointe for years, but almost always in drag, as women. Ballet22, instead, wants to ungender the pointe shoe by having men perform on pointe in their own gender expression—just as themselves, instead of as characters. That is a big step away from ballet’s restrictive gender norms, and it opens up all kinds of new creative possibilities, too.

Courtney Escoyne:
I also think there’s something really lovely about somehow this company actually grew out of the pandemic, which is wild and not a sentence I thought I was going to get to say about anything.

So Roberto Vega Ortiz and Theresa Knutsen launched this company, but actually what it started out as was online pointe work classes for men and non-binary dancers. And they became so wildly popular that they were like, “Hey, we actually kind of maybe have a base and a platform here. What if we do fast-forward and turn this into a company?”

And I just can’t get over how—this shouldn’t seem as fresh as it does, but I’m so delighted by it. Just this idea of using pointe work as just another tool in a dancer’s toolbox, rather than a coded and gendered thing, although you can still use it as a coded and gendered thing and use that to do commentary if you want, or it can just be completely non-gendered. I’m saying this as a woman who used to be able to do double tours: I love this. I love taking aspects of ballet technique and saying, “Gender doesn’t matter. Do what you will with it. Let’s make something interesting.” I think it’s just so much more richer and inclusive and wonderful. And I just…I have a lot of feelings about this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And generative, too. It’s attracting choreographers who are intrigued by these possibilities, as they should be. It’s like the smart, enlightened artist’s approach to ballet technique.

Cadence Neenan:
I think there’s also, for me, it’s something kind of magical that this began as a teaching tool. I think young male dancers, non-binary dancers have been trying to teach themselves pointe work for a long time. It’s been relatively dangerous, but it’s also just been done at home because those students feel like they can’t do that in their own studio. So I just think it’s amazing that now not only is there this teaching that’s specifically geared towards that, but it also developed into a company where those students can now envision themselves dancing in the future. Those two things going hand in hand just feels really transformative for so many young dancers to me.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I think it’s also worth noting, if you look at the history of pointe work: one, Marie Taglioni did not invent point work in 1832. There are records in the first decade of the 19th century of it showing up in performances, but it was more of an acrobatic trick. What Marie Taglioni did in La Sylphide was, it was the first full-length ballet that used pointe work as an instrument of artistic expression. And so a lot of our ideals that carried through to today of what pointe work “should” be in the classical canon, this lightness, was actually very much not just an instrument of artistic expression for a particular ballet, but a reflection of a singular dancer’s capabilities, her oddities, that actually made her an intriguing artist.

And so now here we are centuries later, actually maybe potentially arriving at another transition point for pointe work, where a dancer who is non-binary can use their very unique physical signature, their very unique signature as a human being, their multiplicity as a human, and that can become a tool for artistic and technical innovation.

I also feel like it is necessary, as we are talking about this—the directors of this company talk about wanting this to be a safe place for trans men and trans women. And I feel like it would be wrong for me not to just take this moment to point out that right now, in the midst of all the other really terrible things happening in the mainstream news cycle, there is just historic amounts of anti-trans legislation happening all over the country. And that is something that has direct impacts on everyone, including the dance world. And so please look into that and look into where you can support and help and speak out against that. Because yeah, we want stuff like this to continue to exist, and that only exists if we live in a society where trans folk can be safe and be themselves and be supported and have medical care. And I’m going to stop before I start crying on this show.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Trans rights are human rights. Dancers are humans. Please, please, please recognize that, finally.

The reason that this story just ran is because Ballet22 is in the midst of its virtual spring gala, which started last weekend and discontinuing this weekend, the 23rd to the 25th. So please visit their website, ballet22.com. You can find out more about the gala. You can find out more about the work they’re doing. You can find out more about the classes they’re offering. You can get involved. I mean, it’s exactly the type of news that we need to counterbalance all the other news in this podcast/the world right now.

Okay. We are going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Gavin Larsen. So stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH GAVIN LARSEN

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m here now with dance writer and teacher and former professional ballet dancer Gavin Larsen. Hi Gavin, how are you doing?

Gavin Larsen:
Hi Margaret. I’m good, thanks.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for being with us. Gavin has just written a memoir called Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, which we’re going to get into—we’re going to get way into. But Gavin, I’m also really excited to have you here because you’ve been such a good friend to The Dance Edit. I always look forward to hearing your thoughtful responses to our newsletter stories and our podcast discussions on Twitter and Instagram. Thanks for participating not just in our conversation today, but also in the bigger ongoing conversation that we’re having.

Gavin Larsen:
Oh yeah, it’s been really great. I mean, and you started the pod right around the time that COVID hit. And I just, I feel like it was just absolutely kismet that the two things came, because listening to The Dance Edit every weekend, reading the newsletter every day, it has really made me feel more connected to the bigger dance world than I ever did before. And I just really thank you guys so much for doing it and doing it so well. It’s been really a great outlet for me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, thanks. We are learning along the way, especially as we do the podcast. I think we were saying in our one-year anniversary episode, if you’d told us when we first started that this is what we were going into, we wouldn’t have believed you. But yeah, we’ve definitely learned a lot.

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, enough about The Dance Edit. Let’s talk about you! To get started, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and about your career in dance?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah, for sure. Well, I grew up in New York and trained at the School of American Ballet, at SAB. And I started there when I was about 11 and did the bulk of my training there until I graduated from high school. And at that point I joined Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I was there in the corps de ballet for seven years. And I started getting antsy. I was ambitious in my career, and I wanted to have bigger things to chew on.

And so I started auditioning around, and I joined Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Alberta, when Mikko Nissinen was the director there. And I stayed there for three seasons, and that was a really major shift for me, going from being in the corps de ballet of a pretty large company into an unranked, more regional one—where, the flip side was that it really jumped my career to the next level in many ways. So that was about three years I was there.

And then at that point, Mikko left to go to Boston. And so I took that as my sign to move on as well. And again, I sort of auditioning around and this is right after 9/11. And it was sort of like right now, the job market was bizarre. And people, companies were like not sure what was going to be happening and not hiring much. And so I ended up moving back to New York, where my parents were still living, and back into my childhood bedroom and freelancing for a year in New York. I did a bunch little choreographic projects and I was with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet for one season as well. And as that was sort of midway through that season, I was like, this is great experience, but I really want to be in a company again, with that structure and that support.

And sort of a long, complicated story, but I ended up joining OBT, Oregon Ballet Theatre, in 2003, and moving back up to the west coast. And I stayed there and I danced in the company, for Christopher Stowell, until I retired, in 2010, from performing. And that point I turned to—well, I’d started teaching during my dancing years, but at that point I turned to teaching much more full-time, and also started writing about dance. And that just kind of leads me to here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And you talk about all of this in your memoir, which first of all, congratulations.

Gavin Larsen:
Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In your book, you touch on a lot of the themes that we discuss frequently on the podcast. But before we dive into all of that, can we actually talk about your writing process for the book? When did the idea to write a memoir begin percolating?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah, well, it’s funny is that I didn’t start out wanting to write a book at all. And it came about like very…it like totally evolved and emerged. And all of a sudden I realized, oh my gosh, I think I might have a book here.

It started not long after I retired from performing. I was teaching at the school, the OBT school. And one day I was leaving the building, the studios after teaching my class, and the company was rehearsing. And it was this weird out-of-body experience. Because I was new enough, it was recent enough, that I could feel myself, see myself in that studio, in that rehearsal, in that group of dancers. But I was standing outside looking in. And I went home and I sat down at my computer and I just started writing about it. It was short, it was like a couple pages essay. And I put it aside. And over the next few weeks and months, I started, whenever a memory like that would come up or a fragment of something like that would come up, I would just try to put it down on paper. And they were all short, they’re all like two pages to three pages. And there were fragments, like snapshots.

And after a while I realized it was really satisfying to do that. It was like a way of processing it and trying to explain it to myself and explain it to anyone who might read it. So I signed up for a memoir writing workshop where each week the group of us was just assigned to write essentially what I’d been doing, like the two- or three-page essay, mini memoir. And so five of the essays that I wrote for that workshop are in the book. They’re chapters in the book now.

It just kept going from there. I ended up applying to some residencies to work on it more. And I went to Taos, New Mexico for three months in 2015 to devote to working on what, I now realized, I did want to become a book, or could become a book. And that’s where a lot more material got generated. And I came back, and then it was five more years until I finally got it published, but it did.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It did. And the final version is in that kind of snapshot format, lots of little short chapters. You said in our pre-interview correspondence that you had to fight for that unconventional format. Can you talk about why you felt that was critical to the work? How did you convince your editor it needed to be this way?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. I was really adamant about it because many of the essays or the chapters are not written in my own voice, and they’re told from different perspectives. So the reader may may be experiencing it for themselves. A whole series of these chapters are, like, taking class, and it’s me instructing the reader what to do in their class, as if they were taking class with me. And then other ones are completely in the third person.

My description—most of my training years are as if the reader is an observer looking in, sort of like a novel would be written. And the character is always nameless in those early chapters. The whole first part of the book you don’t know my name. In fact, my name very rarely comes up in the entire book at all. And I did that, it was deliberate, but it was spontaneous. When I began writing about those early years of training, it was kind of a protective measure. It was a way to separate myself from it yet tell my own story completely truthfully, because I felt like if I said my name, if I said I did this, I did that, it was going to be harder for me to be completely forthright. And I felt almost like shy. And then it’s almost like performing. You feel free on the stage to do and dance and say anything with your body because it’s onstage, it’s a performance. It’s all, like, make-believe, you’re in a costume. And this was my way of doing that. It was a way of putting on a costume and then being free to say it all as truthfully and honestly and deeply as I could.

And that—it’s unusual to try to sell a memoir that’s not told as the person telling it. And so the editors were like, “The readers are going to be confused. They’re not going to understand what’s going on.” I was also jumping back around chronologically. It’s not all linear. And they all just kept saying, like, “You have to help the reader. You can’t confuse them. You have to really spoon-feed them.” And I was like, “No, no, no, I don’t.” I mean, no offense to any other memoirs, because there are so many beautiful, beautiful autobiographies out there, but I wanted it to be different. And then I didn’t think mine would stand out. If it was just my plain old story, I didn’t think it would stand out. And I didn’t think it would be worth reading, honestly.

So I eventually compromised, and a lot of the—there’s some introductory explanatory lead-ins to some of the chapters that help explain why you’re not hearing my own voice. And so that was a way of kind of bringing the reader in and being like, Let’s go on this journey together. Let’s go on this reminiscence journey together. And let’s look at that little girl growing up and let’s look at that young teenager in class being confused and let’s do this together. And that finally won them over and got approval.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s interesting that what started out as a distancing technique is what allowed you to be more honest and to go in deeper.

Gavin Larsen:
Totally.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And also, yeah, the fact that you wrote some of it in this third person voice—as a reader, you automatically put yourself inside this little girl’s body, especially the early chapters. I also think that this is a story that is familiar to a lot of dancers. Like, it was unlocking old memories for me of my time in the studio.

Gavin Larsen:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Margaret Fuhrer:
So let’s get into some of the bigger themes that you touch on in your book. A few weeks ago on the podcast, we talked about an essay that former dancer Suvi Honkanen wrote for Pointe, discussing the complicated emotional demands that ballet puts on its dancers, and navigating those demands—this paradoxical need to be both vulnerable and stoic simultaneously, often. That’s a recurring theme in your book, too. How did you experience that sort of push and pull tension during your career? And what did you learn about ballet and maybe about yourself from that process of negotiation?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah, it is a big theme in the book and in my own life. Very early, in my earliest days of training, there was this whole expectation that you just—you had to know everything already, and you had to pretend to know. And I felt like I had to pretend to know what I was doing. And that breeds this kind of stoic demeanor and approach. And I wasn’t able to shed that when I grew up and when I became a professional dancer, I kind of kept that, it was deep in me. And so I kept that even when I had gotten that validation of getting a job in a major company, and then even starting to do well, even starting to get some little solo roles when I was at PNB—even those little bits of validation, I still felt like I constantly had to prove myself, as if I had to justify myself.

And that really got in the way of actually growing and actually advancing, technically and artistically and emotionally, and then career-wise. And I think that it’s really common for a lot of dancers. What I wish is that we can all—and not all, I mean, what I wish for most dancers is that they can recognize that and be brave enough to know that it’s okay to not know everything, and that admitting it and showing it isn’t going to cost you. Maybe there are circumstances where it will, like some very difficult, unfortunate dynamics where it would, but I think for the most part, being able to, well, kind of embrace that is actually going to help you more in the long run.

And I saw that happening. I saw that happening around me when I was in these companies, and I admired and I thought, Oh, that person has such a beautiful kind of demeanor. They have such a beautiful something about them. Their attitude and their manner is they’re humble and have this humility, but they also just have this kind of confidence it’s quiet confidence, and it’s not brash, it’s open. I recognized it in other people, but I was never really able to get myself to be that way until very, very late in my career. And I definitely—writing this book was kind of therapeutic, and that I was able to sort of see that and process it. But yeah, I see that a lot now in other professional dancers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s hard too, because I think a lot of frustrations that people have been expressing with the ballet world, there’s the sense that we ask a lot of dancers already. So asking them to be able to figure out how to unlock that in themselves when maybe the environments that they’re in aren’t conducive to that type of thing—it’s like yet another thing to put on their shoulders.

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
One of the things that you brought up when we were emailing beforehand is the power imbalance in traditional ballet companies, where the people at the front of the room—especially the director, but sometimes other faculty and choreographers too—they’re seen as omnipotent. Can you talk about how you saw that kind of dynamic when you were dancing, and how it can sort of shape a dancer’s psyche?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. The two things play into each other. They’re absolutely intertwined. The two concepts are absolutely the same thing.

The biggest problem for me was not having very much communication with my superiors at any point—teachers, and then directors, choreographers. And there were a few instances where I did interact and did get to work with someone who shocked me, because they actually showed their trust.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Gavin Larsen:
And I think trusting both ways—the dancer trusting the people or person that they are creating work for and vice versa—is absolutely integral to allowing a dancer to be able to shed that stoicism, to be able to shed that shell and to be vulnerable enough to actually be a beautiful artist. And so what I’ve been thinking about since you asked me that was, it has to be communication, and it has to be trust. And the two things have to be visible. And they have to be real. It’s all very well and good for a director to say, “Well, I’m hiring you. Isn’t that show of my trust in you enough? Isn’t that proof enough that I value you?” Well, it’s not. There needs to be this—and that makes it sound like the dancer needs to have their hand held all the time and be praised all the time, but that’s not it either. It’s more about, I guess, a conversation and a dialogue continuing on between the dancer and the director, the dancer and the choreographer, or the dancer and their teacher, about, What do you see going on here? What do you need? How can I help you? This is what I see in you.

And that’s something that was missing for me a lot until I joined Alberta Ballet. And that was the first time when I actually felt trusted. And I thought it was shocking. It was actually startling. I was like rocked, like shaken and not sure what to make of it. But it was really exciting and it was so freeing—to know and to feel, not just be told on the surface, but to actually genuinely feel that I was trusted and valued. And I had something that couldn’t be taken away.

There’s also this sense in a dancer that you’re only as good as the last thing you did. You’re only as good as your last performance. And that’s terribly hard on your self esteem. I mean, how can you actually have a really solid self-confidence if every single day you have to completely re-prove yourself, because what you did yesterday doesn’t matter anymore?

So when I joined Alberta Ballet, Mikko, he gave me this feeling of like, no, I’m glad you’re here. This is great. You’re great. This is fine. And I’m going to help you get even better, and let’s do this together. And it was incredible. And that gave me this freedom to actually experiment and to not always have to be right. And to be okay with making mistakes and being okay with asking a question. That was huge, being open enough—and to realize that asking a question and showing that you don’t know something and showing that you want to continue to learn or to do something, isn’t a show of weakness.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, what can we do to help more dancers find that? Because it seems like you found these pockets of trust and open communication that helped you grow. But there does seem to be a problem in the larger ballet culture where that isn’t built into training. It’s not built into company environments.

Gavin Larsen:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What can be done to make ballet company and ballet training environments more empathetic?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. Well, it’s not built in to the company structures now, but I think it has to be.I really do. I mean, it’s a great question. It’s like the best question right now, I think.

What I don’t think is that it necessitates dismantling the structure of ballet companies necessarily. I’m not one that’s in favor of taking away the hierarchy, for example, of ranked companies. I think there’s a place for all kinds of structures—for the unranked, for the ranked, for the small, for the large, the mid size, for the more collaborative and for the non. But I think what has to change in order to breed dancers that don’t have that protective shell all the time is more open communication between the powers that be and the dancers. The silence that I experienced during a lot of periods of my career was exactly what bred my fear—and mental health problems, honestly. That feeling of being not able to do your best. Of needing constantly to escape. It’s so validating and it’s so freeing and it’s so exciting and inspiring to actually talk to your directors and talk with them. And the once-a-season performance review or conference, that doesn’t cut it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s not going to do it, yeah.

Gavin Larsen:
It’s not going to do it. In fact, it almost makes it worse because you have 15 minutes once a year…

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s terrifying!

Gavin Larsen:
… to go and say everything that’s in your heart. And I remember going into some of my conferences, when I was at PNB—I was a young thing, like literally quivering, literally trembling, because I was like, I have so much I need to get off my chest, but I’m scared. And I only have 15 minutes and it’s like such an imposition on their time. And especially as a young dancer, you can’t just say walk into the office and say, “I want to talk to you.” You just can’t. So open communication, however that’s going to look.

I read an interview today with Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director of Ballet Hispánico, exactly about this, about how to be an empathetic leader. And what he said was exactly what I felt. He said, it’s all about dialoguing with your dancers, telling them, “This is what I see for you. What do you need? How can we achieve my vision for you together?” I’m sure the director of a large company would hear this and go like, That’s totally unrealistic. I can’t do that. I have 50 dancers and 50 employees and everything. But it can happen, on some better level than it is now, I really do believe. And I think everyone would end up benefiting, honestly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, how about in inside ballet training too? Because when you said, you know, as a young corps de ballet dancer, you just can’t go and ask to talk to a director—I was thinking, yes, and you’ve been taught your entire life that you should not do things like that. I feel like it’s this difficult balance, because the discipline that’s part of ballet training, there’s a lot of good in that, but it does seem like often it can lead also to these kinds of communication breakdowns, this lack of trust, that can be damaging to young students. How can we promote a better environment in the classroom as well as in companies?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. The same way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The same way.

Gavin Larsen:
Talking more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Just talking.

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. In my day it was the same thing, like you didn’t go and talk to the teacher unless something huge was happening, and the teachers didn’t come and talk to us either. They came in, they taught class and they left, and that was the end of that. And I think now that has changed quite a bit. I’m a teacher now, too. And I still have a bit of that, like, yes, I want to go in and while we’re in the studio during class time, we’re not going to like just segue off, talking about each other’s lives. We’re just going to do the work. We’re just talking about ballet, we’re getting better as dancers. But I want to talk to them as people too, before and afterwards.

And just breaking down that feeling of unapproachability a little bit in the training structure goes a huge, it goes a long way. It does a huge amount. And again in a bigger school, that’s going to be a little bit harder to achieve, but I don’t think it’s impossible. You can show them that you care about them as people. So I think it’s the same thing just in the training situations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Caring about dancers as people. That’s really it.

Gavin Larsen:
It is.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So we’re going to change directions a little bit here and talk about the pandemic, because we can’t not.

Gavin Larsen:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A lot of dancers have been comparing pandemic shutdowns to breaks they’ve been forced to take due to injuries over the course of their career. And you talk about in the book about your own experiences with injury. How do you think that’s an apt comparison? And in what ways do you think this time is different?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. It’s a very apt comparison. And it’s true, I had a lot of injuries during my career, and there were several periods of time when I had to be out weeks or months. And every time I was injured and out, I remember just feeling this awful sense of like, I’m losing the race and I’m sitting here and everyone else is just tearing on down the race track. And I’m sitting here in a cloud of dust. And I remember having this image of sitting on a train platform all by myself with my suitcase while the train tore out of the station, down the tracks, with all my friends on it, and all my fellow dancers, dancing and laughing their way on down to the next destination. I was never going to catch up. There was no way I’d ever catch up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’ve had that nightmare.

Gavin Larsen:
Totally. I know, right? I mean, that’s the hardest thing about being injured, is knowing that you’re forced to stop while everyone else is still going. And what’s different now is that it’s like everyone’s forced to stop. Everyone’s taking the same pause. And so the playing field is a little bit more leveled.

Overall, everything slowed way down. And I think that had some really, really positive things. I think the world moves so fast. It moved so fast—even in a pandemic, it moves fast. I have always been of the personality type that does not like to necessarily move terribly fast. I want to stop and pause and I want to look around and make sure I’m not missing anything and not forgetting anything and not moving so quickly that I don’t fully express what needs to be expressed or fully explore what needs to be explored.

And this pandemic pause has allowed that. And for some people that meant stepping away from training almost entirely or entirely, and for other people, it meant just looking at dancing differently and creating differently. I mean, there’s been some beautiful and really exciting film and virtual things happening in creation, but there’ve also been some really inspiring non-virtual things happening. And some of those have been stillness. I just, I think stillness is such an important thing in dance and in art. And this pandemic has kind of been like a metaphor for that, a moment of stillness, where we can hold each other’s attention and capture our audience’s attention with this moment of stillness, where you have to actually stop and look because nothing’s moving. And we’ve got to look around at what we have and what we could lose if we always move so fast. So I would say the difference between a normal kind of injury and now is that we can all relax a little bit because everyone’s kind of on the same page and we’re all stopping together.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And the other side of the injury story is always coming back and being a much better artist for having had that time of stillness.

Gavin Larsen:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And I’m so excited for the moment when we all the dancers are able to finally come back to stages and we see how everybody has transformed after having this pandemic pause.

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. It’s going to be really beautiful to see what dancers look like when we can move more extensively again, with that new sense of stillness and sense of nuance in our movement and in our quality. Yeah. So that’s something that’s actually been kind of a relief for me, honestly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Gavin, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. Where can listeners go to order and to find out more about your memoir, about Being a Ballerina?

Gavin Larsen:
Yeah, well, it’s being published by the University Press of Florida. And so you can go to the University Press of Florida’s website and look at my name and you’ll find a link to the book. You can order it right from there. You can also order it online from Amazon or from any online bookseller, Barnes & Noble, any independent bookseller will order it for you if they don’t have it in stock. Some of the local ones that I’m trying to help out a lot are Powell’s Books in Portland, Malaprop’s Books here in Asheville, North Carolina, where I currently live and Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. So those are three indies to check out if you want to order it there. Or if you just go to indiebound.com, that’s a good one that’ll link to your local bookseller.

And then also I have a Facebook page for my book. It’s called, if you look up “Gavin Larsen Author” on Facebook, you’ll get to my page, and I’ll be posting all sorts of updates there on readings and appearances and links to podcasts, like The Dance Edit—different things like that. So that’s where you can look for info.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Great. We’ll include all those links in the episode notes, make it easy for people. I love the indie shoutouts, too.

Thanks again, Gavin. And please keep those social media comments coming. Look forward to them everyday.

Gavin Larsen:
I sure will. I’ll keep them coming as long as you keep The Dance Edit coming.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll do our best!

Gavin Larsen:
Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks Gavin.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
So good to talk to Gavin. So good to read her book, too. If you are or were a ballet dancer, it really will feel intensely familiar to you. And just as Gavin said that the recalling and the retelling of her experiences helped her process those experiences, reading the book felt similarly cathartic too, at least for me. So we’ve included all the book-related links she mentioned in the show notes, but please also give her a follow @gavinalarsen on both Instagram and Twitter.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, y’all.