NYC Dance Project – husband and wife team, Ken Browar and Deborah Ory – have produced some of the most widely circulated images of dance on the internet. Leaps and other gymnastic feats will always be shared and liked more than most, but what makes Browar and Ory's photos stand out is that they communicate not just movement, but interact with the viewer on a personal and emotional level.
Some of their photographs are now gathered together in a sumptuous new book, The Art of Movement, where they have been beautifully reproduced and bound; a worthy frame to enhance their work. The book's title is a modest one, because the art of movement comes from their subjects, but it is the art of the photographer which captures it so vividly.
New York Times writer Gia Kourlas writes in her introduction,
… the more time you spend with dance, the more you glean from it — nuance, detail, even subtle strains of spirituality — it becomes apparent that dancers are not generic, one-size-fits-all entities but finite beings that walk and stand differently in the world.
The intriguing allure of diversity is exactly what these photos convey so well, and yes, even spirituality. In fact, some of the book's most breath-taking shots have the dancer not dancing at all, yet in the stillness there is nevertheless an energy, and this is the illusive quality that most photographers fail to capture. It turns a beautiful composition into an arresting image, a form into an emotion, a simple flat page becomes a three-dimensional magic.
The book has been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks with two other well-known dance books which have both been published in the last year. It is fascinating to note the difference between the books people flick through and those which they devour. Those who have passed through my office recently have devoured The Art of Movement. ‘Unputdownable' is the overused, but applicable, term.
Daniil Simkin, the American Ballet Theatre principal, who got the ball rolling when he agreed to be the first dancer in front of Browar and Ory's camera, writes,
Dance is, of course, comprised of many fleeting moments, but photography can address the evanescence of dance and preserve those moments that would otherwise be just a memory.
A better way to capture many fleeting moments would seem to be with video, the ideal way to record a sequence of movements. But that is just documenting a performance. In fact, video makers who get too tricksy usually end up irritating the viewer and destroying the choreography. With a photograph, creativity is everything; even when photographing a theatre performance, the choice of when to press the shutter makes the difference between producing something of interest or leaving the viewer indifferent. More so with classical ballet, when position is essential: too early or too late and the shot is worthless. However, putting your subject in a studio gives both the dancer and the photographer greater creative freedom. The dancer doesn't actually dance but recreates, alongside the photographer, shapes that are incorporated into his dancing. So, in a way, both dancer and photographer are clicking the shutter together: jump in the air – click – and again – click – and one last time – click. Both choose which fleeting moment to preserve.
The photographs in The Art of Movement are technically magnificent with beautifully judged lighting to sculpt the dancers' bodies, and neutral backgrounds to throw the viewer's attention onto the subjects. Browar and Ory don't use blurs to convey movement – in fact, each shot is razor sharp, though never cruel – but they employ positions which can't be held (jumps and balances) or they use floaty frocks which billow around the dancer; it let's us know that there is a before and after to every shot.
The more than 70 dancers featured come from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Martha Graham Dance Company, Boston Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet, and many more, and they range from teenagers Aran Bell and Julian MacKay to Bill T. Jones and the newly retired Julie Kent. The photos feature the powerful athleticism of James Whiteside and the calm elegance of Fana Tesfagioris; they present intimate portraits of Janet Eilber and Daniil Simkin, and show studies of entwined legs and muscular backs. A feast.
Browar and Ory obviously have the knack to put the dancers at ease because the confidential atmosphere of some of the portraits verges on the voyeuristic. There is a sensuous moment between Zachary Catazaro (New York City Ballet) and Isabella Boylston (ABT); a meditative Mapplethorpe-like portrait of Abdiel Cedric Jacobsen (Martha Graham Dance Company); the most tender and loving photo of twin sisters Samantha Figgins (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and Jenelle Figgins (Dance Theatre of Harlem); and calm, unalloyed peace emanates from the photo of Bill T. Jones.
A ten-page sequence featuring long-limbed Yannick Lebrun and Jacqueline Green from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is simply stunning.
Browsing through the book's 300 pages, you come across various quotes from the dancers and choreographers which appertain to the photo. Lar Lubovitch says,
Dancers who get stuck emphasising only the athletic aspect of dance seem to have only one note they strike repeatedly. They appear to be shouting all of the time. It's the difference between yelling and singing.
It could describe this book, as varied as it is full; it sings. And Bill T. Jones says,
When I am looking for a dancer, it isn't even the person that gets the material fastest. It's the one that I can't stop looking at… they show me something I didn't see in the dance. That's a very precious person.
Precious, like Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, for showing us something we didn't see.
Ken Browar is a renowned fashion and beauty photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and many other European fashion magazines. His passion for dance began when he lived in Paris and photographed dancers for the Paris Opera Ballet.
Deborah Ory has been a dancer since age seven. She began her photography career while injured as a dancer, photographing rehearsals. She has worked as a photo editor at House & Garden and Mirabella, and has shot editorial work for Self, Health, Martha Stewart Living, and Real Simple. Browar and Ory are the creative team behind NYC Dance Project. NYC Dance Project's work has been featured in magazines worldwide including Harper's Bazaar, Vogue Italia, L'Uomo Vogue, and Glamour.
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.