dance and me

I’m sitting in the European Sculpture Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I came here today looking for inspiration. During the past two months, I spent most of my time immersed in dance photography and it’s time to get back to taking portraits. A room full of nude paintings by Lucien Freud and a dark photographic portrait of a woman by Alvin Langdon Colburn (Study – Miss R.) have helped get the artistic juices flowing. But back to dance.

I’ve spent the last month designing my dance website ( I’ve been so into my portrait work for the past 18 months I almost forgot I also photograph dance. Of course I’m always photographing dancers but I shoot them as people, not performers. I realized I hadn’t taken a good look at any of my dance rehearsal or performance photos from the past two years. The task of choosing new pictures for my site was overwhelming. Not only did I have to look over the tens of thousands of images from the past two years but I’ve also been scanning my film archives, finding great images I had never noticed before. That project alone will end up taking years.

ballet next: charles askegard & jennie somogyi

It’s difficult, sorting through so many images. Physically, the hours in front of the computer wear you down. Emotionally…some days I’m sorting through a month of shoots and hating everything. I sit there wondering how after 30 years of shooting dance I can take such awful pictures. But it’s not really like that. Looking at so many images can make you crazy and while picking my favorites, the search made me understand why I love to photograph dance.

allison jones & fanny gombert at a yin yue rehearsal

During this process I did a flurry of new shoots with Complexions, Ballet Next, Richard Move (1963 Graham Interview), and Yin Yue. Yin’s rehearsal helped me understand what drew me to dance in the first place…the perfection of the dancer’s body and the act of creating one art form from another. Shooting four rehearsals of Ballet Next reminded me of why I became a dance photographer. When working with amazing dancers, close up, over and over again; I feel like I become part of the process. I become part of the space instead of a body taking up space. I feel invisible and I know I’m at my best when the dancers forget I’m there taking pictures.

A studio rehearsal is an intimate, enclosed environment. I often end up only inches from the dancers while shooting, one dancer’s hand brushing against my camera during a turn. It is such a great experience. The dancers are so close sometimes all I can shoot are faces and it’s all about the emotion. A small turn of the face or hand gesture can change an average photograph into something wonderful.

ballet next: charles askegard & michele wiles

While doing this search through the last 2 years of work, I realized I had mostly lost my way. So much of the new dance photography out there right now seems to be interested only in the “big” moments of the choreography and many of the dance companies are following the lead of the photographers who shoot this way. The photographers become recording devices for the dance, everyone capturing the exact same moment in exactly the same way. I’ve always been more interested in the beauty and emotion of the dancers and looked for places in the dance where I could capture both the essence of the dancers and the choreographer. In the past, I had always photographed the moments not interesting to the other photographers. Trying to be like everyone else had cost me what always made my dance photographs individual and special.

fanny gombert at riverside park

My rebirth began with Yin Yue’s rehearsal and my friendship with one of her dancers, Fanny Gombert. Yin’s choreography matches the way I see dance in photographs and something about Fanny has inspired me to dig deep into my soul and regain what had been temporarily lost. I had been close before but never could quite get there. Fanny’s honesty, openness, warmth, and artistic sensibility; our longs talks and the emotional bond I still don’t understand, somehow unblocked my senses and allowed me to break through the barrier.

It took three Complexions rehearsals, four with Ballet Next, and one of Richard Move’s, Martha…The 1963 Interview to jump start my personal vision. During that third Complexions dress rehearsal, I felt my mind and my camera were one with the dancers. Time slows down and even though I’m fifteen rows away from the stage, through my telephoto lens I feel like I’m touching them. Some of the best moments come between the dances, when the dancers are working through the choreography in their heads, alone on one side of the stage. Their minds are so deep into the dance I feel this is the time I capture the truest sense of both the dancer and the dance.

desmond richardson on stage at the joyce between dances

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