Proof of this intriguing contradiction is seen in a new collection of New York City Ballet principal dancer portraits snapped by photographer Henry Leutwyler. The portraits, on view at the David H. Koch Theater, among other places, are notable for their depiction of the dancers at ease, sporting practice clothes and clean-scrubbed faces instead of costumes and stage make-up.
"The idea was to reveal the personalities of the dancers and portray who they are instead of showing them just as performing artists," says Leutwyler, who has created the Company's promotional photography for three years.
New York City Ballet has a long history of eye-catching posters and Playbill covers, but these relaxed, personal portraits of the dancers are a departure for the Company. Behind them was an attempt to lift the veil that separates the dancers from the audience and offer an insider's view. Though ballet's allure is based in part on the otherworldly abilities and appearance of the dancers, "you tend to get hooked on ballet when you connect with a person on the stage," says NYCB Marketing Director Karen Girty, who oversaw the shoot. The pictures aim to promote such connections. "We're opening the door and showing the audience something they don't normally see," she says.
For the Swiss-born Leutwyler, a veteran studio photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine, a key part of the job was fashioning the right setting for the pictures. Instead of a white backdrop, he used slate gray and chose to shoot in the Main Hall at the David H. Koch Theater, a rehearsal studio favored by NYCB co-founder George Balanchine, instead of the light-filled studios in the Rose Building where shoots normally occur. "I think the darker background draws you in and makes you look a little closer," he says. "It makes the image more physical, more sensual."
He took his inspiration from the temples of Japan, whose gilded statues traditionally stand in semi-darkness, shrouded from sunlight. "The statues shine when they're in the dark, and I knew if I photographed the dancers against a dark background they would shine, too," he says. Orchestrating an environment where the dancers felt comfortable enough to reveal their personalities was vital to Leutwyler's task and was made easier by his familiarity with the Company and his nearly three decades of photographing dancers, starting in Europe with the Maurice B_jart company. "Dancers know what makes them look good, and any photographer who says he can teach the dancers how to do that is going to fail," he says.
But as the dancers discovered, presenting oneself to the camera as an individual in a leotard and legwarmers is vastly different from being photographed in costume and in character. Principal dancer Ashley Bouder found it odd at first not to "be something" in the photos. Still, she quickly embraced the assignment. "Henry was so enthusiastic and nice that I felt comfortable right away," she says. "I got to be me, just Ashley, instead of Ashley the ballerina. It was relaxing and fun."
The practice clothes worn by the dancers helped set the mood as well. Some dancers brought their own outfits while others chose to have the shoot's stylist select what they would wear.
During the three-and-a-half-day shoot, Leutwyler created a portrait of every principal dancer in the Company. Portraits are his specialty these days. Among his recent subjects are actors Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchette and Denzel Washington, first lady Michelle Obama, jazz musician Keith Jarrett and former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev. "For me, a portrait is not just a face," he explains. "A portrait is a drawing of whatever interests you about someone: the face, the hands, the clothes, the legs, the jewelry, whatever it may be."
In addition, he shot the dancers in groups orchestrated by Peter Martins, NYCB Ballet Master in Chief. Some images occurred serendipitously. A collegial close-up of Bouder with Benjamin Millepied, Gonzalo Garcia and Joaquin de Luz came about because the dancers were standing together and chatting in a similar position, Bouder recalls. "For the picture, we just got a little closer and looked at the camera. I like this shot because it is a true representation of our moods."
Other photos required meticulous planning and expert timing on the part of the dancers and Leutwyler. Consider the gravity-defying image of principal dancer Tiler Peck being tossed high in the air by fellow principals Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar and Tyler Angle. "This shot was almost impossible," says Leutwyler. "She's thrown seven and a half, eight feet in the air with her toes pointed." The camera, placed at an angle not too high and not too low, had to click at precisely the right moment. "I was afraid she would come crashing down and hurt herself," the photographer says. "It was gymnastics, dance and fearless behavior."
Photography was an early love for Leutwyler, who was given his first camera when he was five. He operated a small studio in Lausanne, Switzerland in the late 1970s specializing in still lifes: "chocolate, cheese and watches," he says: before moving to Paris to work as a fashion photographer. "Fashion trained my eye to see quickly," he explains. "No one wants to be in front of a camera more than ten minutes." In 1995, he moved to New York, where he divides his time between commercial and editorial photography.
The appeal of photographing dancers stems from his life-long interest in movement and the human body. "The dancers are beautiful," Leutwyer says. "In these pictures you see them without a lot of make-up or fancy hair. What you see is the beauty within."