The majority of us might not know a Développé from an Assemblé, but we all know two things about ballet: One, it’s difficult. And two, it’s beautiful. The ballerina’s challenge is to hide how hard she’s working, which is why behind-the-scenes ballet stories are always so appealing — it’s satisfying to see the athleticism inherent to the art.
Olivia Bee’s photos, below, are a new addition to the genre. The photographer spent nine days photographing the dancers at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Her shots include rehearsals for the ballet Jane Eyre and a performance of Harlequinade on the opening night of the company’s spring season.
To prepare for her plunge into the depths of elite ballet, Bee took some “beginner beginner beginner ballet classes” — her first since she was 5 years old. “The classes I took helped me get more in the dancers’ heads and be more predictive of movements.” In her photos, you can feel the whoosh of the pirouettes and the barely there tapping sound of a dozen dancers landing after a jump.
But Bee’s favorite subject is the way dancers of all levels relate to each other. She said it reminded her of what she had seen while photographing a ranch crew: “I think with any lifestyle that’s that intensive, people become family. You have to lift each other up and support each other.”
There’s a shift when the photographs move beyond the practice studios and go on stage. Suddenly, the edges go blurry. The ballerinas feel less like dancers or athletes, and more like figures in a dream sequence. “In my work I like to explore dreamscapes based in reality and human emotion,” Bee explained. “Ballet sweeps you away — I hoped to convey this in the images.”
The impressionistic quality is heightened by the colorful, exaggerated costumes used in Harlequinade. The Degas comparisons are unavoidable, but this is like a Degas that’s only accessible in a dream.