Q Dear Jack, how did you choose dance photography as your main professional field? Was there something or someone that influenced your decision and inspired you?
I have been a balletomane for years. Ballets were the reason I began to travel. I set my city-hop type holidays according to good ballet performances, and destinations based on strong ballet theatres. Since I am an experienced photographer, and I like to travel, I decided to merge those qualities together. There was no single strong influence and no sudden change. Everything developed organically, and my interest towards ballet photography deepened over the years.
Q You have a lot of experience in working in the best theatres and academies in Russia. What are the main “specifics” of the “old Russian school”? Do you think it has changed over time?
Classical ballet with its canons is an exquisitely polished and extremely valuable discipline. I believe that it will never disappear from Russia. Yes, Russians are currently on a path of discovery in their theatres, experimenting with different contemporary and modern pieces – but classical ballet will remain. Classical ballet is supported by their strong and strict academic school system. I believe that Western schools are not as strict in the selection of students based on physical parameters or in the study processes. Their method may be undemocratic, but it is undeniably good for ballet. Theatres and schools in Russia’s larger cities work together very closely and in pairs. The Mariinsky Theatre and the Vaganova Academy, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, with the same being true in Perm, Novosibirsk, and elsewhere. A culture such as this serves to preserve strong traditions and deepens the respect of young dancers towards their art and the theatre.
Classical ballet is changing as well. The physical capabilities of dancers and their virtuosity have improved, in my opinion. It is also worth mentioning that Russia is home to the Boris Eifman Dance Academy – the first modern dance school in the country.
Q What are the secrets for working conveniently in the theatre during performances?
Photography in a theatre is never convenient. It is mentally and physically draining for me. During a 3-hour show, the photographer must be 100% focused and follow all the aspects of the show, all while standing in one place the entire time. At the same time, they have to analyse the unstable (and often exceptionally inappropriate) lightning conditions, in order to quickly adjust their camera’s settings. The photographer is unable to enjoy the ballet simply as a spectator. They enjoy it in a different way.
Q Does one need to know ballet very well in order to photograph it well? Or is just loving it enough?
Love alone is certainly not enough. The photographer must be acquainted with ballet and also familiar with the backstage subculture. A photographer must understand how to choose successful photos and how a dancer possibly feels if an unsuccessful photo of them finds its way onto the Internet. In addition, ballet photography is a technically intricate process; the photographer must know the technical capabilities of their camera and constantly test those limits. The photographer has no control over lightning, which is often exceptionally complicated. Concert photography does not offer you multiple opportunities either. The photographer must know beforehand what it is that they want to capture and how; meaning the ballet must be known by heart. The photo has to be good photo-technically as well as ballet technically.
Q Is there one photo or a series of photos that are the most precious for you as the artist?
There certainly is. One of the most memorable concerts for me was when I was capturing the ballet Giselle, with Svetlana Zakharova and Sergei Polunin, in Teatro di San Carlo, Napels. It was a fantastic night and I captured many exceptional photos. The best dancers dancing in one of the most beautiful theatres in the world.
Q Are you a self-critical photographer or content with your results most of the time?
I see myself as being self-critical. It is normal for me to look back at photos that I took two years ago, and feel the desire to take them again; only better this time.
Q You pay a lot of attention to technical equipment and use the best gear for your work. Has it become easier to shoot thanks to the modern progress?
Possessing the best (photo) equipment is critical when it comes to ballet photography. The camera must be capable of capturing images in extreme dimness (Act II of La Bayadere; Act II of Giselle; Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, etc.) as well as in extremely bright and often overly high contrast stage lighting. In addition, the camera must be silent, completely silent. The worst thing that could happen is if the photographer ruins the long-awaited performance for the spectator with their loud camera. Lenses must be capable of shooting in extreme low light, therefore the high price. But it does not end here. One’s computer and software must also be of a high standard. Finding the right photos amongst thousands, and quickly processing high-resolution photos, isn’t possible with just any ordinary equipment.
Q What is your favorite ballet and why?
It is impossible to give a single answer. My favorite ballets are the ones danced on large stages with big troupes. I enjoy when the theatre has a strong corps de ballet. These scenes are effective. To name a few, I am always affected by Entrance of the Shades scene in La Bayadere. But, of course, there are more…
Q What are the most important stage photography rules according to Jack Devant?
Yes, ballet photography has its own ethics, manners and rules. These could differ amongst photographers.
The #1 rule for me is that the performance may not be – even in the least bit – disturbed. I will quietly arrive last, and leave first. I use a silent camera.
#2 Theatre visits require appropriate attire. I am always dressed in a discreet suit.
#3 primarily concerns the maintenance of the high reputation of the dancers and the theatre. I never rush with the publishing of the photos. After making my selection, I will coordinate based on the situation, whether it be with the artistic director, producer or with the lead dancer. Even when making my initial selection, I do not solely trust myself. I consult with a professional. It is a long and time consuming process. Many lead dancers are very self-critical and may remove photos at the last moment, which are perfect in the eyes of nearly the rest of the world. Backstage photos have to be handled with a special sense of reverence.
Sometimes a theatre will ask for a photographer from a local media agency or newspaper agency to capture a gala, someone who is, unfortunately, distant from ballet. They are often dressed in inappropriate attire for the theatre, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and they are shooting with their loud cameras. These types of things happen.
Q What inspires you the most?
Many different things. Ballets, which are really rare. New (to me) ballet companies and beautiful theatre buildings. One of the most amazing theatres I visited this year was the Teatro Massimo, in Palermo, Sicily. I get inspired by finding new details in ballets that I have shot many times in the past, but have never noticed before. The discovery of new (for me) talented dancers, who are not yet famous worldwide, but who will definitely reach that level in the future.
Q Jack Devant’s professional goal for the future.
To be the first choice when a theatre wishes to capture its dancers and performances in the most representable way possible. To be a trustworthy partner for the world’s best ballet dancers.
On the photos: Misty Copeland, Staatsballet Berlin, Diana Vishneva, Larissa Lezhnina and Casey Herd, Ivan Vasiliev, Polina Semionova, Eifman Ballet, Nadezhda Batoeva and Ernest Latypov
JACK DEVANT exclusively for Anna Pavlova Network. All rights reserved