This is a question I often pose to myself. Why this fascination for portraits of ballerinas? One of my favorite procrastination activities is to search for nice photographs on Pinterest, Google images, etc, and I can spend hours looking at photographs of ballet performers, ballet slippers, tutus… and that relieves me a lot. Why?
Sometimes it is just because I like the aesthetics of the picture., like in this case
I have no idea who was the photographer or the ballerina, neither when it was taken. It seems a contemporary wet plate (the colors and the light remind me of Sally Mann’s work, maybe less obscure than her photos), but I honestly don’t know.
I also love finding celebrities taking ballet classes. This picture of James Dean taken by Dennis Stock is one of my favorite ones.
USA. New York City. 1955. James DEAN attending a dance class with Katherine DUNHAM. Magnum Photos
Unlike the previous picture, this photograph does not stand out for its beauty. But I find adorable how she helps him to achieve the en dehors at the second position, and his completely concentrated face. In this picture, he is just another guy trying to get the (almost impossible) right position of feet, hips, back, arm and neck. Moreover, it was taken by Dennis Stock, one of the Magnum photographers and his friend. Stock is indeed the maker of his most famous portrait (besides the Rebel without a cause’s pictures) and other more interesting pictures taken in Fairmount, Indiana, where Dean grew up.
It is indeed interesting to look at the photographers who documented ballet during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Besides Stock, another Magnum photographer, David Seymour, photographed the ballet sessions of Audrey Hepburn, who was preparing her role for the film Funny Face in 1956.
The series is lovely, but what interests me is the fact that David Seymour was Chim, the photojournalist that accompanied Robert Capa and Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War. And he is not the only war photographer interested on ballet and celebs. Cecil Beaton also documented the Second World War, photographed ballerinas and is the author of one the most iconic images of Audrey Hepburn. Alfred Eisenstaedt, famous for his picture of the Victory Day’s kiss, where a soldier spontaneously kisses a young girl when the end of the Second World War is announced, also pictured the rehearsal of Swan Lake at the Grand Opera de Paris and the American Ballet:
future ballerinas, The American Ballet, 1937
So, why do I love these photographs? I think because, basically, they are material and visual traces of the cultural history of the body. Not only the bodies of the ballerinas have changed over the time (they are skinnier and skinnier), but also the aesthetic and social approach to it. Nowadays it’s very rare to find well known photographers and photojournalists documenting a ballet rehearsal, while it was so common 60 years ago. My suggestion is that ballet is a privileged site to see these changes because it requires unnatural positions, hurtful and uncomfortable, that forces the body to go to its limits. And where are these limits established? These pictures shows the plasticity of the limits over the time; how they have changed and how they will change not only in terms of strength, flexibility or appearance. The important changes are the public performances and its cultural meanings. And ballet has a lot to say about that.