Ballet News Reviews | dancers among us

Wildest Dream

Ballet News reviews | dancers among us

Dancers Among Us

Do you remember back when you were a kid ? When your wide-eyed innocence set your imagination free and inspired you to dream ? Living in the moment, unselfconsciously, is something we forget about as adults; responsibility and routine snatching our time and blurring our thoughts.   But….

Celebratory photographs with evocative names : Meter Maid, Alone Together, Sticky Situation, Late for a Meeting, Out on a Limb, Surrender, Wet Kiss, And Don’t Come Back!, Les Bons Temps, Just One More and then…inevitably, One Too Many.

Something I have been positively fizzing over since I first heard about it is the dancers among us project; arresting photographic exploits, initially online and now corralled together into a book of inestimable fabulousness by portrait photographer Jordan Matter.

How often do you spot dancers in a crowd ? Never ? Mostly, dancers walk among us anonymously as soon as they exit the stage door, but if someone starts to photograph them ….

I see a lot of dance photography, and there have been other dance photo-books published this year, so I’m not going to be doing cartwheels in the street unless the images really spark something in me – and dancers among us sparked fireworks! Why ? Because the dancers are not only doing what they do best; they have been photographed in a way that captures the essence of being alive. And the photographs are electric. Quixotic and yet planned with meticulous detail and often with split-second timing, the juxtaposition of ordinary turned extraordinary works magnificently.

Wildest Dream

Wildest Dream

Some of the photographs look impossible. Matter had some of them filmed, to prove that it was. Here’s behind the scenes footage of how you get a dancer levitating over the bay.

Featuring dancers of all genres and ages and by absolutely living in the moment, Matter has taken photographs which have not been digitally altered, and no trampolines, tricks or wires have been used. Jennifer Grey, the actress who shot to fame in Dirty Dancing, that most iconic of dance films, said of Matter, “Jordan Matter’s photographs make time stand still…”

Celebrate the ordinary

Oh, and there’s something else.  The dancers are photographed doing everyday things – literally among us. You’re prompted to look a little more closely at your own everyday life; the moments you might be missing in the rush, and glimpses of what you might see if you just stopped. That’s what this book is all about. Everything is possible if you take time and really look. Look again at what’s in front of you and really see it.

Matter, himself, becomes the subject of the final photograph (The Artist), shooting in the pouring rain with no waterproofs or umbrella – an adventure that would put the fear of God into most photographers, but here it looks fun and, well, in the moment.

Revel in the moment

dancers among us is a book that literally crackles with fire.  Pick it up and you’ll feel the vibrations dancing over your fingertips and then your jaw will drop – over and over again – as you flip the pages and see one impossible, but everyday, marvel, one after another.  Freezing the action in a photograph implies some sense of static, but the reverse has happened here. Instead the pages burst with sensory explosion – life, and lessons learnt while living it.

Divided into seven chapters, the photographs take you on a journey through the whole range of emotions, and each is introduced with one of Matter’s stories, often relating to his two children or his attempts to work as a professional baseball player before the click of the shutter mesmerized him.

Break the ballet rules

In my feature about becoming a media savvy ballet dancer or student, I advised you to find an experienced dance photographer to work with, to get the best professional results.  And then along comes Jordan Matter and breaks all the rules!  Matter had no experience at all in dance photography, nor even of dance. He says himself that he didn’t know the difference between ballet and modern dance at the start of the dancers among us project. He had a lucky, unexpected chance when Jeffrey Smith, a dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company contacted him for a commission. The dancer had the foresight to ask Matter to watch one of his shows so that he’d know more about him before they worked together. So it’s a testament to Matter’s skill as a photographer – and his passion for it – that he was able to translate that skill into a previously unknown genre with such devastating effect. He chose dancers as his subject because they are natural storytellers. His inspiration for photography came from an exhibition by Henri Cartier-Bresson. On dancers among us he has worked with dancers from companies including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Houston Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, as well as the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with whom he first worked.

Hello Sailor

Hello Sailor

Matter tells a funny story about how, when collaborating initially with these talented dancers, he asked them to wear leotards, and en masse they revolted. It was a good sign, because, had they not been able to wear their ‘among us’ clothes, the project wouldn’t have had that vital ingredient.

Never give up

Anyone who works in dance will tell you that professional dancers are immensely focused and hard-working and will go over and over and over whatever it is you’ve asked them to do until they are happy with it.  And they are almost never happy with it. In one of the chapters, Matter tells the stories of some of the challenges he faced while shooting, and in the process reveals the sheer physicality and repetitive hard work that was involved. In some cases, the dancers would jump, in heels, in rain, wind and/or snow, 200 times or more. That they were happy with the shots is yet another testament to Matter’s skill. Some of them also undertook colossal journeys just to take part.

The shots look spontaneous but they are anything but.  Here is another juxtaposition : while Matter had locations in mind for some shots, he never planned the actual shot, preferring to meet the dancers and survey the area with them. Timing was everything. In one shot (VIP Treatment) he captured a background (a passing aircraft carrier) that only passes the heliport they were shooting at twice a year, and even though he’d been planning the shot for months he’d never seen that coming. So in the end, in sweltering heat, they had about 2 minutes to capture that exact moment.

In plenty of locations his preference that “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” led him into hot water with the authorities, cutting short the amount of time he had to shoot. His attention to detail is unswerving, though. Matter only asked his dancers to turn up with several options of bright clothing and used them to match up details in the background, and a great example of this is Caffeine High with Xiomara Forman in New York. They found a sign that matched the fuchsia colour of her top, and the perfect location for her jump, even though the shot was inspired by something else altogether…

For the photographers among you, Matter uses a Nikon D3S and shoots with two camera bodies and a collection of lenses : 14-24mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 28mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4 – the last three especially for low light conditions. He tried to keep the ISO as low as possible but sometimes it was as high as 6400. Matter uses only available light sources. A minimum shutter speed of 1/320, using a single frame for each jump is his preferred method of shooting. I have seen inexperienced dance photographers relying on continuous frames to capture that split second at the peak of a jump but Matter works the very best way – by anticipating the movement rather than leaving it to luck. These photographs provide an excellent resource for anyone who wants to study the detail of photography; what makes a picture stand out and jump off the page. Matter uses Adobe Bridge to review his work and Photoshop to colour correct or remove distracting background, but that’s it. What he saw is what you get.

This is my book of the year, by a long mile.

And…. Happy Christmas !

Two words.  Buy it.

dancers among us is published in the US on 30 October 2012 and in the UK on 13 November 2012. You can pre-order from Amazon by following this link :

Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday (Paperback)

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