You've heard of the NYC Dance Project and seen its beautiful series of dance photos: carefully lit and glamorously shot. Its images, featuring some of the world's best dancers, adorn thousands of blogs and Facebook timelines.
There are so many NYCDP images out there that it a surprise to learn that the first post on the NYC Dance Project blog – with American Ballet Theatre's Daniil Simkin – was just eighteen months ago, in January 2014.
The couple behind the Project are Ken Browar and Deborah Ory. I asked Deborah how it came about.
The inspiration for the project came from decorating our 13-year-old daughter Sarah's room. Sarah is an aspiring ballerina and wanted her room filled with dance photographs. We made extensive searches at bookstores, on the internet (Amazon, eBay and others) and galleries. We purchased books, calendars and other photos and to our disappointment were not able to find images of the current dancers that Sarah admired. There were beautiful images of famous dancers from past generations – such as Baryshnikov or Markova, taken more than 40 years ago – but nothing of the current stars.
Like many good ideas, it was born out of necessity.
Ken decided we needed to photograph these dancers ourselves. We were great fans of Daniil Simkin, the American Ballet Theatre Principal dancer and sent him an email asking him to be our first subject. Daniil loves photography and agreed to be photographed.
Before you rush to the phone to call up your favourite ballet star for a shoot, maybe it's time to give a little background. Ken Browar is a very successful photographer having photographed spreads for Cavalli, Dior, Ferré, Moschino and many more, and celebs such as Meryl Streep, André Previn and Natalie Portman. If you have portfolio like that, it makes it a little easier to kick off at the top.
After a successful photo shoot with Daniil, he arranged for other Principal dancers to work with us and before long NYC Dance Project was officially launched.
Once the images were posted on social media, the word spread in the dance community and dancers from all over approached us to collaborate.
Deborah's background is not only in photography but in dance too. She started lessons at seven and began her photography career when she was injured and couldn't dance; she took photos of the rehearsals she should have been part of. She worked as a photo editor at magazines such as House & Garden and Mirabella, and shot editorial work for Self, Health, Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple.
Getting your work noticed is not an easy task as the internet is full to saturation point with dance images. Dancers jetéing their way through the subway, in attitude on flashy cars, leaping around in a forest… Apart from their subjects, Ken and Deborah's photographs stand out as they are taken in the same studio with similar backdrops and lighting.
We love photographing the dancers in our home studio space. It keeps the emphasis on the dancer, the movement, the light, composition and emotion of the image. Having all the images against our backgrounds gives us a style and signature to our images.
Certainly, as soon as you see a NYC Dance Project photo, you know that that is what it is! Though Deborah says,
If we were to shoot on location, the Paris Opera would make a very nice studio!
It would indeed!
Ken and Deborah live in a large loft in an old factory building in Brooklyn.
We actually shoot in our living room. Having these artists come into our home creates a different environment for our shoots: during the shoots, cats will walk across the set, nap in the tutus and our children arrive home from school. It is a very warm and friendly place and we invite the artists into our home.
After the shoots, they often stay and have drinks… It is very different from having them come to a rental studio.
Having the shoot in their studio takes away many of the logistics of working on location, but organisation is still necessary.
Each shoot is planned, almost like a choreographer would plan a performance, with thought going into our backgrounds, lighting and concepts for the images. Many of our shoots featured costumes or couture clothing and that is coordinated beforehand with the dancers.
On set, it becomes a true collaboration between both of us and the dancers, we work together to create a mood and feel for the images. Most shoots we also work with hair and makeup – preparing for the photos feels very much like preparing for a live performance.
Their photos are composed, tranquil, without angst. Sometimes their subjects execute a dance move, sometimes they are as still as sculpture, often they just gaze serenely into the camera.
The images capture the simple moments such as the breath the dancer takes before a jump. The project is a celebration of bodies and movement. Dancers must simultaneously be artists and athletes; both qualities are highlighted in our photographs. We also try to capture the personality and character of the dancer – we think of these images as portraits of the artist.
Our photos are also about capturing emotion through movement – it could be a simple gesture and not a “trick”, as long as it captures a feeling.
These feelings are frozen within the body of a Hasselblad, the Rolls Royce of cameras.
We shoot with a Hasselblad and strobes – it is quite slow and we only get one shot at a jump so we really have to be in synch with the dancers. It is important to us to work slowly and deliberately, as it is a very collaborative process for us. The Hasselblad gives us large and detailed files – we could make very large prints with these.
We take turns shooting, adjusting lighting, styling clothing, etc. We both are working at all times on each image, regardless of who is shooting at the time.
Those who follow the NYC Dance Project know that a peculiarity is that the photos are presented on its blog together with an interview with the subject. Ken explains how that came about:
NYC Dance Project shows the dancer not only in images that capture their movement and spirit, but also through the words of our subjects. We knew when we began this project that if we wanted it to have an editorial feel, it would be important to have some written content about each dancer.
Deborah began her career working at magazines, so creating interviews to accompany the images seemed like a natural choice.
Natural and winning. It has earnt them a vast following in a very short space of time. So what's next?
We are working on putting together a coffee table book of the images and interviews. We also would love to have an exhibition of images and a gallery as we are constantly getting requests to purchase images.
We are also starting to get more involved in the dance world, not only photographically. We just helped to produce a performance with one of the first dancers we photographed, Lloyd Knight, a Principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company. It was a benefit performance to raise money and awareness for the victims of the Nepal earthquake.
We've also been working closely with Daniil Simkin on his Intensio performances that will be performed at the Joyce Theatre, Jacob's Pillow and tour worldwide.
And dreams for the future?
There are many dancers we would still like to photograph, but we also are really interested in working with choreographers.
If this is just the beginning, then there's an awful lot to look forward to.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.