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Dangerous Dancing

Jan 28

In history, On Location at 5:43am

I have worked in Russia many times, and it remains a place of eternal fascination for me. It drips emotions and imagery like blood from a wound. It is vibrant, tough, wonderful, unexpected, and impossible. It’s beautifully ornate, but also, at turns, the very definition of austere.  It is raw, and wary of outsiders. But, once you gain a measure of knowing and make a bridge, there is very little that is not possible. I have been eyed with the keenest of suspicion, and embraced like a brother. The pictures you make there have a special echo, as sometimes, anyway, they were very tough to shoot.

I was reminded lately of the tough, dicey part of picture making there via the recent story of the acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet, a truly extreme expression of the eternal intrigue, vengeful infighting, and brutal politics that surround this company in a city that worships ballet. The Bolshoi is one of the oldest ballet companies in the world, and being the artistic director there is to be the focus of adoring approval, or, ire of, well, theatrical proportions. As the NY Times reported, his “tires had been slashed, his car scratched, his two cellphones disabled, his personal e-mail account hacked and his private correspondence published.”

I can’t imagine such vitriolic anger being directed in this country at a ballet director. Now, if you were the head football coach at say, University of Alabama, and went 0-10, that’s a different story.

I went to Moscow to photograph the Bolshoi after my good friend Igor Malakhov, mentioned to me that he was friendly with one of the prima ballerinas of the company. We hatched a story, and I sold it to my editors at LIFE, who told me I could only go if I didn’t spend any money, seeing as they didn’t really give a rat’s ass about ballet. So I went to Moscow on my frequent flier miles, and stayed in Igor’s apartment (he moved in with a friend) and lived cheap, which was very possible at that time in that city.

I went in to meet the business director of the company, to introduce myself and to grandly describe LIFE’s intentions, feeling certain he would just fall over himself in terms of cooperating with such a prestigious American publication. He did seem suitably impressed, and then just casually asked me for $1,000 cash. You know, just to get the ball rolling. I blanched, and recall my hands fluttering about my pockets the way one might when you think you have lost your wallet. I gulped and told him I simply didn’t have that kind of cash. He smiled, and showed me the door.

Okay, well, the least I could do was buy a ticket to a show, and maybe sneak a few photos. Went to the box office. Sold out. And, not just tonight, but like, forever. Chagrined, I walked outside, where there was a gaggle of large men in black coats in front of black cars. Ticket to the Bolshoi? $150 USD. I had a good seat, courtesy of the Russian mob.

How to crack this nut, photographically? In Russia, there is always another way, another door. Igor contacted Nadia Gracheva, his friend. Would she consent to a photo session, outside the purview of the ballet, on her own? The answer was yes. She in turn introduced us to another ballerina, and we shot with her. We processed the film at one of the only E-6 labs in Moscow, and made several large, wonderful prints, which we then gave to the dancers. When other dancers saw the images, they started calling us and suggesting sessions. Ballet is a naturally competitive world, and attention given and withheld is duly noted. As the standing joke goes, “What’s the difference between a prima ballerina and a pit bull?” Answer? “The jewelry.”

Without bribes or contortions, we were inside the company. I shot backstage, but my main focus was to take the dancers out into Moscow. Russia was in the midst of upheaval, leaving behind the stoic grayness of Communism, and the city was bursting with entrepreneurs, fine restaurants, and Benetton stores. In such crazy times, who pays attention to ballet? I wanted to place these consummate artists in the midst of the hurly burly of Moscow’s awakening, and see what would happen.

It was fascinating to work with the dancers and sense them embrace the oddity of plying their art in the midst of a subway station, or a famed landmark of a steam bath, the Sanduny. It reminded me all over again how dancers can take and phyiscalize your imagination, and at the same time improve on it via their own fluid mechanics and improvisational movements. The fact that this was Moscow in 1996, a place in the midst of turmoil and change made it all the more of a wonderfully improbable project. LIFE, which wasn’t interested and basically sent me to Moscow to shut me up, ran it 11 pages.

I did things I still remember, like setting up my tripod at the conductor’s pulpit, where Tchaikovsky once stood. Persuading half naked Russian guys in the baths to be in a ballet photo. Igor, running around the baths with his self proclaimed “smoggy machine” a pot of something or other he lit on fire to pass for a smoke machine. The toughness of Nadia, as she posed for me in ballet duds, in Russia, in February. Getting pulled off the roof of the GUM department store overlooking Red Square, with the rationale being I was using my cameras to photograph Kremlin documents though the windows. My favorite shot of me working, courtesy of Chris Morris, up on that same roof, when Igor worked his fixer magic and got us back up there.


It was a window on a an amazing place, at an amazing time, provided for me by wonderful, passionate artists. I jumped though that window with both feet. More tk….

(Quick tech notes: All the setup portraits and scenes of the dancers were shot on a Mamiya 7 Rangefinder medium format system, working mostly with the 43 and 80mm lenses. It was far and away the most versatile, favorite medium format camera I ever used. Film was largely Fuji 100 RDPII chrome.)






John Fowler says:

on January 28, 2013 at 7:17 am

Fascinating images and another great story. You make those photos like climbers climb mountains. They’re there. Thanks Joe.

Nate Parker says:

on January 28, 2013 at 7:29 am

Yeah right- likely story- I always figured you as a secret agent man!

Tim Skipper says:

on January 28, 2013 at 7:51 am

I have always loved your dance pictures. Knowing the story behind them makes them do much more interesting.

Jere says:

on January 28, 2013 at 8:21 am

Amazing story, fantastic pictures.

Peter says:

on January 28, 2013 at 8:29 am

Joe, stunning work as always!!!

Quick question: How do you deal with publishing the performance images when you didn’t have official permits? Don’t your editors object or even flat out refuse to run them? I imagine you would be violating all sorts of copyright laws, just sneaking shots at a performance, whether backstage or in the audience. I know that with some companies, dancers can get into quite a bit of trouble if they are caught with a camera backstage.

By the way, based on what I have heard, the mob is actually the reason why it is impossible to buy Bolshoi tickets at the box office as a mere mortal, no matter how early you queue up. It is all an elaborate scheme, they basically make sure they buy out all the tickets and then sell them for outrageous prices. That practice has stirred quite a bit of controversy in the past.

shea says:

on January 28, 2013 at 8:32 am

Exquisite, both the story and the photographs. Thank you again for sharing.

DQ says:

on January 28, 2013 at 9:20 am

how how HOW do you stay so positive and aggressive and driven? good on ya!

was that Chris Morris who did the pick of you the same who went on to become the war photographer?

you brought lights to Moscow, too? Norman 200B on the roof? old school, brosef!

xo :-)


Jim Child says:

on January 28, 2013 at 9:45 am

You always were and will always be the “Master”.

Bogdan says:

on January 28, 2013 at 10:01 am

Being born and raised in neighbouring and former Communist Romania, I can relate to this story very, very well. Thanks for sharing it, the work is superb as usual :-).



Claudia Dowling says:

on January 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

Great story, great pix!
Worth all the misery. . .

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on January 28, 2013 at 11:54 am


That necklace you have on in the behind the scenes photo looks vaguely familiar. Wasn’t that something that came from the Sekonic line? Great shots, wonderful insight. I loved how you worked your way there and in Russia on a shoestring, with little more than hope on a personal project.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Millie says:

on January 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

Wowww, amazing captures! Truly love the first shot. Great post…enjoy your day!

Libby says:

on January 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Mamiya 7 – in the back of my mind I think about chucking all of the digital and getting that camera and traveling. Maybe someday. I almost got one when they first came out – I should have.

Thank you Joe for another peek into your world – appreciated as always.

Stephe says:

on January 28, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Wonderful story, I could help but laugh when they thought you were shooting top secret documents in the Kremlin from such a distance. They must believe the James Bond films!

I would like to know how important having contacts has been too your ability to get a project rolling?

Michael of Manila, Philippines says:

on January 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm

This is really mind-blowing Joe! Even without words, your photo’s can tell the whole story. Fantastic. I always think about you everytime I shoot. Thanks for inspiring me and for teaching me to love my camera more.

Lorin duckman says:

on January 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Good story and good images. Different world now. Or is it? Artists have responsibility.

Craig Beyers says:

on January 28, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Joe – I’m [very] slowly learning from you that the story makes the pictures, not the other way ’round. Of course, they complement each other, but you clearly have the story in mind before you make the pictures (even if the sotry changes along the way). Your dancer pictures have been inspiring and I’m now looking for a story for dancers for a studio lighting class I just started. Thanks for the inspiration. CPB

Jason says:

on January 29, 2013 at 6:25 am

Great story and wonderdul picrures! Thanks for sharing. The pictures are very inspiring.

Rick says:

on January 29, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Fabulous story as I was there in Feb.1997 to pick up my son from one of the orphanges in St. Petersburg. Had to go thru Moscow as well. The scenes are what we say there and particular the inside of one of the tenaments. They all looked that way. Thanks for the memories.

Martin Lyons says:

on January 29, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Great work, some exceptionally inspirational work!!

Matt Timmons says:

on January 29, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I worked with the Bolshoi that same year. I’ll be we met some of the same dancers. Pretty cool reading this.

Rick Lewis says:

on January 29, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Stunning imagery Joe! Wonderful post. To live your life….:-)

Kristin Linnea Backe says:

on January 30, 2013 at 4:33 am

So great! Thank you!

Jeremy Walpole says:

on January 31, 2013 at 10:18 am

Wow, great story. Your work is amazing, I always enjoy visiting your site.


Jonathan Ellul says:

on January 31, 2013 at 10:11 pm

always inspired after reading your posts. thank you Joe!

Nikolay says:

on February 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Mamiya 7 is amazing camera and when in your hands Joe the results are stunning. I really wanted to buy the Mamiya 7 but I choose the cheapest option, as I already had Canon lenses.
I really enjoy the blue image with the dancers on the backstage, any way the whole session is unique and amazing and also I would like to thank you for sharing this eastern adventure with us 😉

Rodrigo Muñoz says:

on February 4, 2013 at 11:49 pm

amazing story and perfect photos as always ! your ballerina photos are my main inspiration for the photos i love to do:
you are the master joe !

Laurence says:

on February 10, 2013 at 11:35 am

Amazing story, love the photos very inspiring.

Photo Canvas Prints says:

on February 15, 2013 at 3:11 am

Really great work very nice pics in dancing action.

Milan Winograd says:

on February 17, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Whenever we at first left a comment I clicked in the inform me any opportunity brand-new comments are really added checkbox and currently every time a remark is added I acquire 4 email messages because of the identical comment.

Tumbleweed Photography Studio says:

on March 5, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Love photographing dancers. I imagine it would be an even greater opportunity to capture them in unlikely places like the ballerina in an abandoned building. Stunning images.

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