Ballet News Reviews | Dancers – Behind the scenes with The Royal Ballet
There are, from my experience as a commissioning editor, just a couple of exceptional ballet photographers. I can count them on the fingers of one hand and I’d still be able to pour the tea. By exceptional I mean a photographer who goes beyond the capabilities of their camera, beyond the conventions of photography, and the end result is that each photograph tells its own story.
Andrej Uspenski is one of these photographers, and his skills are all the more remarkable because he isn’t a full-time professional photographer. He’s a dancer with The Royal Ballet, and has been for 10 years.
I’ve reported before that it’s not unusual for dancers to turn to photography, either as a hobby or as a second career. In fact, a disproportionate number of professional ballet dancers will pick up a camera at some stage. They have the access, which isn’t freely granted to outsiders, the trust of their colleagues, which is just as hard to win, and they are by nature visually aware. No-one wants to see a bad photograph of themselves, let alone one that is published in the press on a website such as this one, and the importance of an accurate, never mind flattering image is never more acutely observed than in ballet, where the dancers are largely self-critical as a result of the necessary hours spent in front of a mirror. They aren’t vain; it’s just that a ballet photograph has to be just so, which is what the dancers strive for, and the exceptional photographers know that.
Photography isn’t a regulated profession. You don’t need to have trained at a particular university or gained qualifications in order to get professional work. In fact, the aesthetic skills of composing a photograph can’t be taught, and for many, that’s the beauty of the challenge. Uspenski learnt the technical basics from his father, who was a keen amateur photographer before digital arrived on the scene, and since then, despite his busy Royal Ballet schedule as a First Artist that has taken him around the world, Uspenski has gone on to develop his own recognisable style. All of the exceptional photographers in any field do this.
Dancers | Behind the scenes with The Royal Ballet brings together for the first time all of Uspenski’s talent and delivers a compendium of backstage imagery that could probably only be accomplished by a dancer in the company. Half in black & white, half colour, the photography in Dancers covers the full range of backstage tutus and pointe shoes through to the moments before curtain up and beyond. It’s taken years.
Royal Ballet Artistic Director Kevin O’Hare and Associate Director Jeanetta Laurence introduce the work, which covers all ranks within the company from Artist to Principal.
Principal Miyako Yoshida retired from The Royal Ballet in 2010 but she can be seen rehearsing with Anthony Dowell. Audience favourites Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru feature over a number of pages, as do Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares. Nuñez and ex- Royal Ballet Principal dancer, now Artistic Director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, can both be spotted laughing behind a small Alp of tutus.
There are production photographs taken during dress rehearsals but this book is all about what happens when the audience is not in the building. Elsa Godard sits in the sun rolling out her feet, Natalia Osipova ties her pointe shoes, Claire Calvert peeks through the curtains (as does Osipova) and Jonathan Howells walks around his dressing room in …. well, you’ll have to see that one for yourself.
If you’ve ever wondered how proficicent the dancers are - interestingly, this applies equally to the male dancers - at applying their stage make-up, there are candid photographs showing just how expert they are, and you may not have seen the results from such close quarters before. Indeed, the Royal Opera House doesn’t want you to. Most dancers have a clause in their contract that prevents them from leaving the stage door with full stage make-up on, and that’s because it’s designed to be clearly seen from the Gods in the theatre, not from a couple of inches away.
When the Royal Ballet’s performances are filmed, the dancer’s make-up is toned down, because the high definition cameras are so close and record every detail with such clarity that a more subtle canvas can be painted.
The Royal Ballet does employ excellent make-up artists of course, but sometimes the dancers can work from a production photograph. Uspenski further demonstrates his dancer’s intuition for great timing, because this group of photographs capture the dancer’s humour in every day moments, even when the result is anything but.
Easily one of the most evocative images in Dancers is of Steven McRae standing on the main stage with a small row of dancers far, far behind him. The Royal Opera House stage is one of the largest in the world. It’s poignant because you can see in this image the confidence-sapping, daunting moments before curtain-up, when all a dancer has is their thoughts. McRae is captured like this several times, alone and deep in thought. Then, of course, after curtain-up he pulls it off with a blistering run of jetes across the stage, and these too are captured.
This is your entry into a world that you don’t get to see as a rule. It doesn’t matter whether you’re familiar with the dancers or with The Royal Ballet itself. You may never have seen the company perform and you’ll still find this book a treat. Why ?
Dancers is about exceptional ballet photography and for that alone it is rare, valuable and worth collecting.
Dancers is published by Oberon Books on April 1st and you can pre-order by following this link :
Andrej Uspenski’s website