Photograph of Gavin Larsen by James McGrew

by Gavin Larsen

The Rite of Spring is minimally costumed. We are a horde, a cast of dozens, wearing mostly skin, and feeling conflicted about it. Normally, in the studio, we carefully construct outfits that are sleek enough to look professional, warm enough to protect the joints, comfy enough to give moral support, and stylish enough to boost morale. The expectation to be relaxed and dance freely while nearly naked makes me feel— at first— reduced. We’re supposed to be oblivious to our exposure, to frolic gleefully despite it. Or, maybe, in defiance of it.

The women are in red leotards. That’s it. Sleeveless, high-cut, low-backed, as tight as sausage casing, blood-red leotards. The men wear briefs as red and as tight as our leos.

It’s a premiere, this production of Rite. An in-studio run-through is scheduled a week before opening night. Choreographer, and lighting, costume and set designers all want to see the work fully, and up close, before it’s set on stage. A note is made on the rehearsal schedule: Wednesday 3:00-5:30: Rite of Spring, Complete, in costume.
No one wants to admit their insecurity. Nor their relish.  

We put on our red leotards downstairs in the costume shop, but then layer on sweatpants, shirts, leg warmers and track jackets, and head upstairs as if dressed for any other rehearsal. We warm up, stretch out, choose which pair of pointe shoes are pliable yet sturdy enough for this particular ballet’s percussive pointe work, practice a few steps, tug and pull at the tightness of the leg-seams and fuss with the low neckline. And then it’s time to strip down. Unceremoniously, outwardly cool, inwardly shy, secretly feeling a tickle of thrill… pretending not to size each other up, to compare, pretending not to stare at ourselves in the mirror. Startled at how cold the air is on bare legs, how strangely vulnerable—how wrong—to be so naked in such a public place.

The box office is in the lobby just outside the studio, and those people waiting in line for tickets look overdressed in their long pants, street shoes, and coats. But then after a few minutes, how free it is to have no encumbrances. Those mysteriously concealing tights were a barrier much thicker than the minuscule weave of their mesh fabric, I realize. Maybe their compression was squeezing my movement as well as my legs. Now the air feels the same temperature as my skin— like swimming in perfect water, the entire studio my pool. 

There’s a little pride in seeing muscles, usually veiled, now in full, bare, exposure. I feel eyes looking me up and down. My legs are very defined. And without the modest shading of a pair of tights to smooth their ridges, my muscles look almost grotesque, even to me.

Are we children or adults? Professionals, but what kind?  

My pride is confused. It’s bolstered, then squished, while my brain fires on all cylinders to propel this red-leotard clad race car through the choreographic obstacle course of The Rite of Spring—by the finish, I think I am the sacrificial maiden instead of just part of the tormenting gang. I feel wrung out like an old dishrag, empty and spent and soaked. My saturated red leotard is stuck to my skin with sweat. I can’t feel where my skin ends and the fabric begins anymore. And then, suddenly, I am reduced to a costumer’s faceless mannequin as we line up under fluorescent lights to be scrutinized, every inch criticized, commented upon—from the neck down. My artistry is finished, left hanging in the studio air.

By the time rehearsal is over, after two hours in a single layer of stretch fabric, fatigue and resignation have overcome any lingering self-consciousness. 

There’s another layer, though, beneath that leotard, or perhaps on top of it. Usually, I see just the outline of my dancing, the shapes and positions I carve in space. In motion, I know only what I feel, and I must try to imagine what it looks like. The studio’s mirror reflects lines and shapes and positions with stark honesty, but I can only study those images when I’m static— and dance is motion, not poses. We dancers use those snapshots we see in the mirror to fix points of positioning along the lines of movement, almost as if we were giving a photographer opportunities for a good, in-focus shot. But when I am really dancing— eating up space— although I still make sure to crystallize those moments (each barely a millisecond long) and may even catch a glimpse of them in the mirror as I hang on top of a leap or hover tenuously in a balance, tempting time and physics, the rushing current of the dance is invisible to me. I’m too busy to stop and look. 

But now, exposed like this, when the hood of the race car that is my body is hiked open while the engine is gunning, the machinery that produces my dancing is (with shy pride) visible. Hello, legs. As much as others are scanning my body (my fellow dancers do so with discretion, but those who are supposed to be checking us out have no qualms about staring), I too am captivated. It’s not ego, I’m not vain (a common misperception about dancers); it’s more of a professional fascination. So that’s what my instrument looks like? That’s how it works?

On stage, no one cares anymore about what they have, or do not have, on. There is too much else to worry about, and the viewers are too far away, and the mirror is gone. We’re used to each other in red now. My partner glances at me, as we line up in the wings for an entrance. Nice stems, he says, with a dancer’s mix of appreciation and envy. And a comment, overheard and reported to me by a friend watching from out front: Who’s the gymnast? My muscle-bound legs are an anatomy textbook laid open, and apparently those pages are readable across the footlights. I take this one as an underhanded dig, an insinuation that my body looks too power-packed, my dancing like a routine. But I don’t care. I’ve carved those muscles myself with the care of a sculptor working in marble. My tool is my brain, my instrument is my body.

On stage, no one cares anymore.