When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to have an interview with Moscelyne Larkin. After studying ballet for six years at a smaller studio, I was ready for more intensive work, and everyone in town knew that the really serious training was happening at the Tulsa School of Ballet, then the official school of Tulsa Ballet, co-founded by Larkin and her husband Roman Jasinski in 1956.
I decided not to care about the stories I'd heard about what a tough place it was. I wanted to be a ballerina, and Miss Larkin, as she was known, had the goods.
On the day of the interview (after which Miss Larkin might or might not agree to take me on as a student), my mother and I were shown into a small office filled with photos and newspaper clippings from Miss Larkin's career dancing with the famed Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the 1940s and '50s. In 1947, a London critic wrote that she was "the first ray of sunshine after the war."
At last Miss Larkin came in -- tiny, elegant, immaculately dressed, her black hair slicked back from her high forehead. Her father was Welsh and Shawnee Peoria Indian; her mother was Russian. Her bones were proud. She sat down at her desk and plucked a chocolate bar from the drawer. She unwrapped it, broke off one square, wrapped it up again, and returned it to the desk. "Not too much," she said, smiling as she nibbled.
I wasn't just entering a new dance studio. I was signing up for a new way of life.
Ballet is deeply, gloriously, complicatedly old-fashioned. It's handed down from teacher to student, generation after generation. Studying ballet is like being a blacksmith's apprentice, and the experiences of the teacher inevitably become part of the student's knowledge. Miss Larkin's experiences in the Ballets Russes -- where ballet dancers became as glamorous as movie stars and performed before sets designed by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall -- came with her into the school on 33rd and Harvard. When she died on May 2, at age 87, she left behind thousands of people for whom time spent in that studio was formative.
It was training in determination and commitment, in finding out how much one was willing to give in pursuit of dance. Miss Larkin had given everything, and would continue to do so until Alzheimer's began to rob her of her sterling presence of mind. Into her sixties she was doing multiple fouette turns and jumping into the splits to show us with what spirit those things should be done -- a spirit that had little patience for "good enough." It was not enough to do the steps perfectly, nor just to move with passion and feeling. The best dancing required ... everything.
Former TB Board President Georgia Snoke was a young teenager when Miss Larkin returned to Tulsa, her hometown, after touring the world as a ballerina. Snoke recalled that "Miss Larkin was the one who insisted on technique, technique, technique! I suspect that was because she was a radiant and effervescent dancer, but didn't want her students to 'get by' on charm."
"She was beautiful, warm, charming," Snoke said, "with the most expressive hands. As her student, I wanted to live up to her expectations. She taught me to be honest with myself about my faults, but to be equally honest about my assets."
For some of us, working with Miss Larkin was our first experience of being asked to take a hard look at ourselves. There was the constant refrain: if you will only give in to this work, your instrument -- your body -- might make music. It could be painful, as Gail Gregory Algeo remembers. A principal dancer with Tulsa Ballet in the 1980s, she recalled being publicly challenged about her weight and scolded for not living up to her potential. "She wielded a lot of power over us," Algeo said.
Roman L. Jasinski, Miss Larkin's son and the director of Tulsa Ballet from 1991-1994, described his mother as "a very complex individual."
"She wore many hats in her lifetime: ballerina, wife, mother, aunt, cousin, teacher," he recalled. "She was a different person depending on who she was with. She was a person at home that nobody would even understand. She had a special relationship with my cousins, and we spent a lot of time together. My mother was like a grandmother to them.
"A lot of people don't know my mother was a sci-fi person," he continued with a laugh. "She always called herself a Trekkie. In the early days of her illness, we'd watch Star Trek together."
Jasinski said Miss Larkin always feared getting Alzheimer's. "Her grandmother had it, and her brother Lloyd died from it in 2001." Jasinski thinks it began to affect her about 15 years ago, though a formal diagnosis didn't come until 2002. "Even as it began to move through her body," he said, "she'd do things that were just so her."
When it became apparent that Miss Larkin could no longer live alone, Jasinski moved back into his childhood home to care for her. "It was like walking back in time," he said. On the first night he was home, she woke up again and again. On the second night, he recalled, "I put her to bed and I said, 'We're going to stay in bed until 7 am.' She agreed, and I went to sleep, only to wake up to her flipping the lights on and off, on and off, real fast, like she'd always done at bedtime. I said, 'Mom, it's 3:30 in the morning. Remember our new rule?' She said, 'It is 7. Come and I'll show you.' She took me all over the house. She had changed every clock to say 7 am."
"She was so determined," Jasinski said. "It reminded me of how she always used to say, 'Because I said so!' That was just who she was." (Details will be announced soon about a public memorial service Jasinski is helping organize at the PAC.)
In dance, the physical body is trained to express a supernatural dimension, what Miss Larkin, quoting a Native American saying, called "the breath of life." The company she and her husband created has always emphasized both theatricality and clarity, both passion and technique, in short the whole legacy of the Ballets Russes tradition that she and her husband brought to Tulsa. Carrying on her work is "a big responsibility," TB Artistic Director Marcello Angelini said. "But it's fine for me," he continued. "We think very much alike: we won't settle for second best."
My former classmate Rev. Amy Zeittlow recently wrote in the Huffington Post about paying a visit to Miss Larkin, then fully in the grip of Alzheimer's. Struggling to connect with her beloved teacher, she began to sing the "Five Positions Song," which Miss Larkin had sung to each incoming class of little girls. After a few lines, her eyes lit up, and she began to sing along with a smile on her face. It was, Zeittlow wrote, "the true Miss Larkin smile that always said to me, 'I am pleasantly surprised that you've made me proud of you.'"
My own path led me away from ballet after high school. Today I'm dancing again, training my body once more to find that singing music. I'm still working with what Miss Larkin taught me, and it's still not easy. Sometimes one has to die a little to get that breath of life.
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