A photographer’s experience of photographing the Russian Ballet By Ken Scicluna

For a period of my life, I lived in St. Petersburg.  I loved the city.  Every step you take is full of history.  You feel the ghosts of the great Russian writers, composers and painters who lived there: Pushkin and Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Shishkin and Repin. 

St.Petersburg, Russia;Ballet dancers resting between scenes in the wings watching the show on stage during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘The Nutcracker’

Every Friday, I used to ‘get lost’ in the Hermitage Museum, with its vast collection of art.   I loved the Galleries where the impressionist painters were exhibited and was particularly inspired by the paintings of ballet dancers by Degas, Manet and Toulouse – Lautrec.  

Russia; St.Petersburg; Ballerinas preparing themselves for the performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘The Nutcracker’

After some gentle diplomacy, I persuaded the Director of The St. Petersburg Conservatory Theatre to give me carte blanche to photograph his ballet troupe.   I had watched some of the classic performances like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutckracker and Swan Lake but at that stage I did not know much about ballet dancers. 

The St. Petersburg Conservatory Theatre ballet troupe are all graduates of the Vaganaova Ballet Academy in Rossi Street, St. Petersburg, one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world. This Academy is exceptionally tough and only the crème de la crème of dancers who enrol from an early age manage to complete the course.  From the moment I shot my first images I became obsessed with the elegance of ballet and the human form.

Russia, St.Petersburg; A ballet dancer doing a pirouette in her solo piece during Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’

Initially the dancers were all too aware a photographer was following their every step.  But after a few months, I became a familiar figure, photographing their exhausting and intensive rehearsals, through brief periods of rest and nerve wrecking performances.  I gradually became the invisible photographer who walked in the shadows on tiptoes hiding behind curtains and props.  

Russia, St.Petersburg; Prince Sigfried played by Yuri Kalinin, First Prize Winner at the Citta’ di Rieti International Dance Competion, performing in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’

I loved the challenge of photographing the dancers: working in the low light of the theatre, shooting hand held and trying to catch magical moments as the dancers metamorphosed into their characters.  None of my images are posed. After each shoot I would go home, hungry and exhausted but exalted.  I came to understand the psychological and physical struggle which each member of the dance troupe undergoes.  Every move in Classical Ballet is a challenge, to be performed with apparently effortless grace. Their bodies, float and fly through the air as if weightless, creating a magical world of power and elegance.

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