The world of dance is very much about the unrelenting and occasionally cruel quest for perfection. I’ve worked with many dancers, and have made what I naively thought to be a worthwhile or even beautiful photograph, only to have the perfectionist inside the dancer rise up and shred it. “Ooh, no. You can’t use that, look at the position of my ring finger on my left hand!” I am only being midly facetious here. Ballet demands perfection, which of course is unattainable. Any dancer who sticks with it has heard the call to be perfect, in their head, and perhaps in their dreams. I would speculate many a little girl, as they take their first stumbles in toe shoes, has drifted to sleep with visions of being lifted into the lights before adoring thousands, and then drowning delightfully in a sea of tossed roses from a rapturously applauding audience.
More often, though, the call to perfection is more of a bark, harsh and unforgiving, from a dance master or mistress, or a choreographer, who, understandably driven by their own sense of discipline and vision, pushes the dancer to that point where the laws of gravity simply fall away. As Balanchine once said, “Dance is music made visible.” That’s hard to do. I was blessed to work briefly for ABT and made this picture of the magnificent Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent, who together and apart, are the epitome of grace and elegant lines. As they took this position, I was stupefied at the exacting nature of the choreographer, and the giving nature of the dancers, striving to bend their bodies to his will.
Much of this burden of perfectionism falls on the women, of course. “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener,” again, quoting Mr. Balanchine. The women of the ballet world are stars, objects of desire and wonder, adored, even worshiped. They are also the subjected to intense scrutiny.
That scrutiny reached a fever pitch of late with Alastair Macaulay’s NYT review of New York City Ballet’s recent production of The Nutcracker. He stepped forward and critiqued Jenifer Ringer not just on her dance skills, but on her body type, saying she looked as if she had eaten “a sugar plum too many.” In the firestorm that followed this comment, he remained unapologetic, noting that in the physical world of dance, the body is part of the art form.
True enough. When one engages in any public art, be it dance, movie making, painting or photography, criticism is part of the game. The internet, and it’s cloak of anonymity, has ratcheted up the volume of criticism that is out there, and, at least occasionally, lowered the level of civility with which commentary is leveled. Anybody can say anything they want in cyber space. One can wryly, ruefully, and patiently note that those who venture the least, and are blessed with not a scintilla of their own talent are the ones who are drumming the most loudly. The old cry of “everybody’s a critic” has never been truer.
I was blessed to work with Jenny on a couple of occasions. Most notably, for me, she volunteered to be my test subject when I first worked with the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera, at the time located on the lower east side of NY. I have written of this instrument before, so I won’t belabor it’s specifics, but it was a monster of a camera. (Some folks confuse this camera with the Polaroid 20×24, which is quite a contraption, but toy-like in comparison to the Giant Polaroid.) It was occasionally referred to as the 40×80, because that was roughly the size of the image created with one exposure. The interior chamber of the camera was as big as a one car garage, and, very crucially for a dance photo, at f45, the camera had a depth of field of about a half an inch. The lens had no shutter, so, just like in the old days, you had to go dark in the room, pull the cap of the lens, and hit the flash. In this case, about 35,000 watt seconds of flash.
You also could not focus the camera. You had to focus your subject. Small shuffles back and forth would place them in that tiny zone of critical sharpness. Then they had to hold that position for about 30 seconds while the interior workings of the camera got spooled up, the lights got shut, and the flash fired. Not easy to do. Especially on point.
If anybody’s wondering about the color of these, what you are seeing is the natural, and occasionally inconsistent color palette of the Polaroid material, not to mention some pretty rough copy work. The entire image, with the chemical tailing that is a trademark of the Polaroid process, is about eight plus feet tall. Naturally, I wasn’t content trying for a sharp, static photo with this behemoth camera. We experimented with introducing just a touch of motion.
Jenny was so magnificent posing for this beast of a camera that we were able to knock out 6 Giant Polaroids in one day. (The fact she was excellent at holding poses was truly fortunate for me, as at the time, each sheet of Polaroid cost $300, and this was my own gig. No client paying the bill for the photos.) At the end, she posed with few of these life sized replicas of herself.
It was a wonderful day in the studio. For my part, I had to wrangle the sheer size, complexity and balky nature of this camera into a responsive instrument that could capture Jenny’s wonderfully held moments and movements. For Jenny, it was an exercise in discipline and precision, two concepts she’s quite familiar with. She is, I’ll venture to say, the only ballerina in the world who has ever posed for the Giant Polaroid. I’m fond of the images we made, even though they’ve been seen by about a dozen people. They remain rolled up in a tube in my basement. (Except for the one I gave Jenny, who in turn gave it to her parents. Geez, I hope they have a big house.) Perhaps someday a balletomane, or a museum devoted to ballet might offer a home for them. Who knows, after I’m gone, they might even be valuable. (As my friend Ronnie, who has collected a bit of my work, says, “I’m going to have you whacked. That way some your stuff might be worth something.”)
It’s been equally wonderful to watch from afar as she has fought through personal struggles, dropped out of dance for a while, and then returned to the stage as a principal dancer. She has always talked straight up about the life of a ballerina, and her struggles with her weight. Her talent and candor, I feel, make her a beacon in the dance world, which prefers to keep the pain, the anorexia, the sweat and the tears behind the curtain. Ballerinas look amazing on stage. Offstage, their bodies can be just as beat up as an NFL offensive lineman.
Jenny’s handled this week with typical aplomb and grace. She did not attack, nor demand apologies. Jenny’s not a 16 year old stick in pointe shoes. She’s a woman. And, as she said, quite directly, in response to Mr. Macauley’s column, “I’m not overweight.” Twyla Tharp once said of her, “Jenifer is a major talent; she is gorgeous; she has qualities few dancers do. She radiates what she is–a very good person. That combination of real beauty and talent and warmth made her a logical choice. Jenifer has a very clear, clean technique and her exceptional musicality is a factor; she is an intelligent person. In a partnership, Jenifer has a female quality that is marvelous.”
She is marvelous. She’s a woman who flies. More tk….