Dance is the most ephemeral art. Music, theater, opera‹all deploy manuscripts to come alive, and recordings transmit the inspiration from the stage to the screen. Film and video recordings of dance provide useful documentation, but they don't capture the electric fervor, the kinetic energy, the sheer edge-of-your-seats excitement of seeing a ballet happen in front of you, right here, right now. Dance happens only in the present, which makes it both heroic and tragic.
Photography captures the essence of dance‹which is ironic, considering that a photograph is a fragment of a second of a movement, a fleeting instant framed by lens and film and sensibility. The most insightful dance photographers seize the spirit of a dance and freeze it, turning the fugitive image into the enduring icon. The dancer and the dance merge; the center holds. And a moment that exists for only a split second lives on.
To learn about life behind the lens, we caught up with four photographers who focus on American Ballet Theatre. Each brings a singular perspective to photographing the dances and the dancers of ABT, and a boundless enthusiasm for the art.
When Myra Armstrong joined the publicity office of American Ballet Theatre, the company landed a two-for-one talent: a dedicated publicist and an accomplished performing-arts photographer. Armstrong has worked in ABT's publicity office for more than two decades now, and her lens has captured the stellar parade of dancers on the company's stages. She has photographed every important dancer there is, and she's still, engagingly, a little bit star-struck.
MYRA ARMSTRONG: I started to teach myself to take photographs in 1954, basically because I could not draw. It's true. I wanted to draw like N. C. Wyeth, the great children's book illustrator of my generation, who did beautiful work. But since I couldn't draw, I thought, well, I can make pictures like his with photography. Over time I learned that for dance you have to push the film speed way up, open the aperture all the way, and use a very slow shutter speed‹which takes a very steady hand. By doing that, the resulting photographs looked like paintings.
I did my first dance photography when I joined Sol Hurok's organization in 1957 or so. Hurok made sure that I shot the Bolshoi and all the other companies he produced at the old Madison Square Garden. There I'd sit, happily snapping away. When I joined ABT in 1978, they pounced on me to shoot their Met seasons. At first I shot from the Grand Tier viewing booth, and for a while I used the company box, but I was uncomfortable as I am extremely conscious of the noise from the camera. Now I shoot from the director's booth, where noise is not an issue. The Cynthia Gregory picture was taken at the finale of her 20th anniversary with the company, and when they dropped all these flowers and confetti and glitter on her from above, I went hammer and tongs with the camera. Cynthia was thrilled‹she wanted the picture for herself. She signed my copy of the picture.
I think of the Amanda McKerrow picture as a lucky shot. You can know the peak images in the ballets, you can know how you need to shoot the moment, but sometimes getting a dancer at that perfect moment is just luck. I consider taking photographs of ABT a great privilege.
Nancy Ellison was a successful photographer, with a career in photojournalism, portraiture, and conceptual mixed-media work, when she started taking pictures of American Ballet Theatre in 1994. Based on a photograph Ellison had taken of some dancers on a movie set in California, which looked a bit like a Degas, then-chairman Peter Joseph asked Ellison to shoot an ABT souvenir journal. The book was widely acclaimed, and Ellison soon added ABT to her portfolio. Ellison has taken the photographs for many of ABT's publications and exhibits.
NANCY ELLISION: Doing the 1994 souvenir program for American Ballet Theatre was a wonderful entrance into dance. I had not really shot dancers until ABT, but in a certain way shooting these great dancers is easy enough. It's kind of like going to a fun house to shoot the ducks as they go by. The dancers provide the perfection. I just shoot the picture.
Getting a dancer at the height of a jump, when every part of the body is in alignment and completely extended, is one of the things that I love. Ballet has such extremely high standards, standards that have been set for hundreds of years now, and dancers are dealing with a continual quest for perfection, both in the art form and individually. I have tremendous respect for the dancers of ABT, and I love being a part of their process. For a moment in time, dancers can become perfection, and I want to celebrate that.
With portraits, I try to see what that person's beauty has that nobody else has. The portrait of Angel [Corella] was almost a grab shot. He looked so gorgeous that I just put him right in front of my light. The lighting is very flat, head-on. Giving him a more complex lighting would be less bold, and the reason I like it is because it doesn't have the complexity of more elaborate light. Angel is so dynamic that even standing still, you feel his power and confidence.
The picture of Nina [Ananiashvili] was taken during a photo session for the first book. She was fixing her toe shoe on the floor, and she looked like a child angel. Well, a mischievous angel. Nina is a totally enchanting human being, an imp in spite of her great beauty and impeccable artistry. I think this photograph is closer to who she is than any picture I've taken.
Rosalie O'Connor photographs ballet from deep inside the art: she danced with American Ballet Theatre for 15 years. O'Connor had always enjoyed taking photographs, but when a serious injury sidelined her in 1997, she began photographing the company in earnest, and what had been an amateur pastime became a professional lifeline. O'Connor retired from dancing in 2002 and now works for ABT, Mark Morris, The Juilliard School, and other performing arts clients.
ROSALIE O'CONNOR: Even though I had had a camera since age six, and always took a camera on tour with ABT, I had never photographed dance until I entered a contest in 1996 for the magazine Dance Ink. I won it, which was exciting. At that time, ABT was starting a Web site, and I was asked to create a photo gallery. I was dancing a great deal then, I did not have the right equipment, and I was very hesitant. Fortunately, my friend Greg Gorman, a renowned photographer, guided me in everything about equipment. And I just loved taking photographs‹I was completely hooked. I ended up carrying two cameras in my ballet bag. I was accepted by Kevin [McKenzie] and the staff, and the dancers were extremely generous and supportive.
When taking photographs, the advantage of being a dancer is that you know the speed, you know the phrasing, the choreography of so many ballets. And if you are shooting a new ballet, you can figure it out quickly and spot the key images. I love rehearsal photographs, because we get to know the dancers offstage. And I really enjoy capturing somebody at the height of a jump. That can be breathtaking. The photograph of Ashley [Tuttle] in Giselle captures such a fleeting moment. The choreography is difficult there, but Ashley is so elongated and light she looks like she's being blown through space by a hurricane.
For me personally, the biggest thing about photography was finding a passion to equal my passion for dancing. And there's the bonus that everything that I've known since I was a child applies to what I do now. It's nice to feel that nothing is wasted or forgotten. It's more than nice‹it's quite wonderful.
Marty Sohl first photographed American Ballet Theatre at the San Francisco Opera House when Mikhail Baryshnikov made his initial appearances with the company. Since that time, she has shuttled between New York and San Francisco, her home base, shooting ABT on both coasts. Additional performing-arts clients include the Metropolitan Opera, Alonso King's Lines Ballet, and a broad range of companies around the country. She recently started shooting Ballet Arlington, a small, Russian-influenced company in Texas. "There are wonderful little dance companies around that you never hear about," says Sohl. "I mean, there are amazing dancers in what you would think is this little cow town in Texas. Who knew?"
MARTY SOHL: I started out as a dancer myself quite a while ago, dancing in a company called San Francisco Dance Spectrum for about ten years. I was watching a lot of rehearsals, and I realized, 'Hmm, maybe I should think about something for when I can no longer dance, something that will keep me in the dance world.' So I bought a little camera and started taking pictures. I did not know what an f-stop was, what a shutter speed was. But I played around with the camera and asked a lot of questions. Eventually I shot one roll of black-and-white film for San Francisco Ballet, and they actually bought three pictures from that one roll. I wound up taking pictures for the Ballet and San Francisco Opera for more than 20 years. When you are shooting dance, knowing how dancers are supposed to look, what a good line is, why turnout matters, is very important. That, and a sense of timing, of where the dancer is heading and what they will do next. But you never really know if you got that perfect shot until you actually look at the picture. You think, I got it! [laughs] And then someone's eyes are closed, or it's just a tiny bit out of focus. I want the dancers to look as good as possible.
I love that sequence of pictures of Ethan [Stiefel] in Within You, Without You. That was taken at a dress rehearsal, and he is so intense. What I like best about taking photographs is capturing the dancers' energy or their emotion. I think these pictures get that. I consider myself really lucky to be able to shoot dancers of such high caliber at ABT. They are the best dancers in the world.