Sometimes a great and fulfilling art project needs to come to an end, allowing something new and fresh to begin. My first shoot with Ballet Next was on November 16, 2011, a rehearsal at DANY studios in midtown. It felt like a ballet celebrity event including Misty Copeland, Jennie Somogyi, and Ballet Next directors Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles. I photographed their first performance five days later at the Joyce Theater. I hadn’t shot ballet in a long time. I love watching ballet but as a photographer it can bore me. I prefer the energy, spacing, and choreography in modern dance. I don’t want pretty. I want real emotion. Some of Ballet Next’s new choreography was edgy, giving me the precision of ballet and the energy of modern at the simultaneously.
I quickly became close to the company – maybe too close. Michele Wiles and I became good friends. My all-time best muse, Lily Balogh, joined the company in the spring of 2012. Another special friend and muse, Alison Cook Beatty, choreographed a dance for Ballet Next’s first season at the Joyce, to be performed that fall. We all hung out together, drinks at the Mexican place near DANY and picnics on my rooftop. My cats loved Lily and Michele. Michele would feed Sasha (the cat) fried chicken from the Chinese takeout around the corner. Sasha would groom Michele’s hands in return.
We were family. Then things changed. Charles left the company. Lily was in and out. Allison’s dance didn’t get a good review. I began to burn out on some of the choreography. After a year of amazing friendship and photography, like two lovers who don’t know how to take the next step forward, we split up and went our separate ways.
During the past few months, I began to see photographs of a “new” BalletNext on Facebook and Instagram. It was still Michele Wiles but this was a different company. The images piqued my interest. It wasn’t about how the photographs captured the dance, it was about how the dancers opened up for the camera. Everyone looked amazing. Some of the pictures seemed to be more fashion photographs than dance images. I wondered if Michele had deliberately chosen these dancers for their photogenic beauty? I thought back to the years I photographed American Ballet Theatre. Baryshnikov seemed to choose dancers who were as photogenic as they were talented as ballet dancers… think Julie Kent!
I had promised myself I would not shoot as much dance anymore for personal projects. My goal is to work solely as a fine art photographer and unfortunately, book publishers and photo galleries are rarely interested in dance as a photographic art form. I I don’t shoot what I believe the galleries might show, it’s that I have always been a portrait photographer first. If I can earn a living selling prints of my portraits and nudes, that would be my forty year dream come true.
Sometimes the confluence of the rivers of life force a person into new directions. My friend, Caitlin Trainor recently gave birth to a lovely daughter, causing her company to take a short hiatus. Nadine Bommer’s dancers spread out across the world. The New York Live Arts season had ended. I needed a new dance company to work with, one who would allow me complete artistic freedom. The first company ever to do that was Ballet Next, almost six years ago.
I kept seeing pictures of BalletNext on my social media newsfeeds. They were now rehearsing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The light in these studios reminded me of Irving Penn’s portraits from the 1950s. He was a master of light. I believe his portraits and fashion shots from that time are among the best photographs ever taken. I was still nervous about beginning again with this company and decided to research the dancers, learning if they had the right emotional fit for my work. It’s amazing what you can tell about a person from their words and photographs on Facebook.
I’m not sure who I found first – probably Violetta Komyshan. Her name sounded Russian, and since I had visited the Soviet Union many times in the early 1990s along with my love for Brighton Beach, I’m sure I “stalked” her first. I’m guessing it also had to do with Violetta’s face. Her look is perfect for my Intimate Portrait project. There’s a natural warmth to Violetta that comes out in pictures and while wandering the net I get to her Instagram feed… 353K followers! Really! What dancer has over three hundred thousand followers!? Wendy Whalen “only” has 32.3K followers and she’s been a ballet superstar for decades. Okay. I agree Violetta is a photographer’s dream, but still!
Today my Instagram feed sits at a wimpy 1168 followers. I must be the only well-known photographer with such a pitiful following!. The young muses I photograph have more followers than I do. I’ve been photographing dance for over thirty-five years! My friend, Andrea Mohin (45.9K followers), on staff at The New York Times, and one of the great dance photographers of all time, told me during a break at a Paul Taylor dress rehearsal, “You don’t have many followers on Instagram!” Ha, ha! Yes, I know Andrea! It’s a good thing I don’t care too much about these things but when I hear from gallery owners and creative directors they often find their photographs on Instagram, it becomes important for my business. My pages must be seen. I hoped, maybe, if I took pictures of BalletNext, some of their followers might find me… and just in case you’re interested, it’s @paulbgoode.
Social media can mess with your mind. I had a vision of what the BalletNext dancers would be like – Diva Goddesses From Another Planet! On May 22nd, I walked into a studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center and what do I see, two young ballet dancers sitting on the floor, waiting for rehearsal to begin. I’ve walked into similar scenes a thousand times in my life. As with all the times before, what was in the room were just young girls. Violetta and Natalie, please don’t take this in the wrong way. What I saw in the studio were two young women with hearts and souls, real people, sitting in the beautiful light streaming through the wall of windows across the room. Real people – not Diva Goddesses! I knew I was about to capture something special. The images I had seen on Instagram only scratched the surface of what these women could offer my photography. They were indeed goddesses but not in the way I had expected. Not all dancers move with their souls intact. I knew these women could do that for my photographs. Now I imagined muses moving in front of my camera, bathed in Irving Penn’s light. I quickly forgot about Instagram followers.
This essay for now, should end here. But after shooting five BalletNext rehearsals I have more to say. During the first three shoots it was Natalie and Violetta dancing and Michele choreographing while I wandered the studio taking pictures in that “Irving Penn” light. The dancers worked on a lot of improv movement, steps for a new dance. I learned the piece with them. Violetta often appeared to give my camera special focus, directing her attention towards me. Maybe it was my imagination – was she staring through my camera, watching her reflection in the mirror behind me. Either way it gave the photographs a personal touch, not often found in the dance studio. Sometimes it felt as if the dancers were there, moving just for me.
I brought my Rolleiflex to the second rehearsal. It’s identical to a camera Penn used. One of his cameras is on display at The Metropolitan Museum, the opening “work of art” at his centennial exhibition. It looks just like mine!
I shot one roll of film while Natalie and Violetta took Michele’s class at the barre. I saved the second roll for what I hoped would be a portrait at the end of rehearsal. When they finished, I asked the two dancers if they would pose for a quick portrait. Both respectfully agreed and I moved them to a place against the wall where I felt the light might be right.
Violetta is a “creature” when the camera is pointed in her direction. Photography loves her. Everything about Violetta is made for this. I was concerned that Natalie would be overshadowed in the portrait. Natalie asked if she should remove the shorts she was wearing over her leotard. Without thinking I said yes. Instinct told me her lines would look cleaner. Natalie took off the shorts and leaned against the wall. I’m sorry but I have to say, “Whoa!” This was not the same woman I had photographed for hours in the studio over the past two days. Natalie was fierce! I didn’t have to worry about Violetta taking over the portrait. Their intensity was equal. There was so much more to Natalie than I had seen or imagined. Afterwards I would expect this energy from Natalie while she rehearsed in the studio.
Standing in front of my camera were two goddesses. It’s not a term I use lightly. I save that for my muses. I didn’t have time that afternoon to fully capture the image I wanted. I’m looking forward to my next chance. I will be ready next time