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….
Tom Peterson says
Only if everyone could have a champion like Joe McNally.
Ian Mylam says
What a wonderful post, Joe. You write brilliantly, and your writing is not only amusing but full of humanity. Have a great Christmas, and all the best for 2011.
Roddy McWha says
Well said, Joe!
I had a sister, (who admittedly had a great voice), who turned down many offers to join the Met, and spent her life on a couch, eating tuna fish and finding fault with everyone who would dare to let the world hear their voice-no one rose to level she required!
I suspect Mr. McCauley eats a lot of tuna fish!
Corinne Fudge says
She’s fantastic, talented and in amazing shape. Alastair Macaulay is what is known this side of the ocean as a complete w****r. You can swap that for ‘idiot’ and ‘dinosaur’ if you’re not allowed to print my original 🙂
This post is beautiful, the images are wonderful, and Jenny an inspiration. Your words make the photographs come to life.
fausto rowlan says
Alastair Macaulay’s criticism of Jennifer’s performance was to be expected, right or wrong it’s what critics do. His comment about her weight (veiled in a lame joke) was unnecessary, since it has no effect on her skills. While I’m sure the amount of backlash surprised him, if he’s going to dish it out, he’s got to be prepared to take it.
That said, ballerinas are expected to meet an impossible standard. Jenifer Ringer has a combination of strength and beauty, athleticism and grace, in measures well beyond that of the average human, or dance critic.
Mike Neale says
Stunning captures, Joe,…breathless poses, Jenny,…Priceless team effort.
Ranger 9 says
Crikey, Macauley really is getting it from all sides when the pho-blographers chime in!
And in this particular case, he probably deserves it. Macauley, make no mistake, is a brilliant, expert, and indispensable critic. He’s one of the few uncowed by sacred cows and unafraid to say things that need to be said — tough when there’s so much pressure to be a fanboy and “promote the art form.” Without voices like his, there’d be no way for audiences to learn the difference between genuine artistry and superficial eye candy. (The same is true of the people who perform the equally thankless task of photography criticism, by the way.)
But promoting unhealthy body imagery is over the top (although when I read his initial review, I took his remark as a knock on the costumer’s design work rather than Ringer’s physique.)
And it points out that, like many New York City critics, Macauley is too much in awe of the Balanchine aesthetic. It’s worth mentioning that this emphasis on super-thin female dancers is pretty much strictly an obsession of Balanchine and his clones: nobody expects a Royal Ballet dancer, or a Bournonville dancer, or a Merce Cunningham dancer to look like that.
I think the important message for photographers in this wonderfully heartfelt and well-written post is that when you’re photographing in somebody else’s world — whether that’s the world of dancers or architects or race-car drivers or chefs — you have to be respectful of that world’s standards. Not slavishly respectful (you still need to bring your own voice to the conversation) but aware that what you say with your photographs may resonate in ways you didn’t expect.
That’s what Macauley, uncharacteristically, didn’t do, and now he’s taking his lumps.
Cindy Snyder says
Wow. Don’t know how I missed all that. So glad Jenny is healthy enough now to stand up to Macauley. It is an incredibly tough profession. Through 13 years of ballet, I knew I didn’t have the body type, but worked my butt off to get as far as I could. I have the utmost respect for those who have the fortune to continue on. And the photos are gorgeous. There must be a home for them somewhere. They deserve to be seen by the masses.
Tim Skipper says
Every time I see your dance work I feel like I should watch a ballet, then I remember I live in the deep south and lynch guys for less than that here.
The images are awesome as always
Brian Struble says
Wonderful backstory, written with care and dignity towards an amazing artist. Thank you for the story behind your photographs, which are amazing, but even more so for the view into Jenny’s world.
Both complement each other most perfectly!
Happiest of Holidays and Peace on Earth…
William Chinn says
Once again the McNally story behind the photograph makes it that much more interesting. Thank you.
William Chinn says
On the flip side, too bad Mr. Macaulay works in a profession where you have to be negative to be interesting. And so, you have the art of the ballerina and the photographer, and the dark side of the critic. Which would you want your child to pursue?
Jim Markland says
That’s my kind of stuff!… But I think you know that already.
This is an extremely well-written and poignant post Joe. Your images are first rate, of course, as always, but your message here is even truer. Bravo.
Joe, when were you planning to issue the rest of us grunts our own prima ballerina? The way work has been I could use something pretty in the corner of some frames.
Thank you, Joe, for another beautiful post. Your images are nothing short of amazing and there are times when your prose is even more poignant. This is one of those times. Your obvious respect for the people on the business end of your lens is what makes you the artist you are.
Don Harper says
A wonderful story of which you have many. I guess it’s about the number of years spent paying dues and one of the underrated aspects of photography. You get to meet interesting people, see neat places and do fantastic fun stuff.
Ben Fullerton says
I have a very high regard for all of your work, but sometimes you show something that just blows my mind entirely. The top image of this post is easily one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen. If dance is music made visible, then that image is poetry made visible. That image speaks volumes to me, and evokes as much emotion as any beautiful poem, song, dance, or movie that I’ve ever seen.
Thanks for sharing, Joe!
Rene' Lauer says
When the story first broke I found myself looking at the ballerina and wondering who could possibly fault someone so beautiful, graceful and talented. She is perfect just the way she is. Thank you for speaking out with such heartfelt praise. If there were only more people like you out there to set the record straight and silence the idiots. Thank you!!!
Reminds me of the days when I was in the commercial darkroom and we had to hang rolls of Kodak “E” surface paper to the wall to make 40×60 prints projected on the wall of photographic paper.
A fantastic and warming tribute, Joe. That Ms Ringer could hold those poses, as you said: en point, in the dark! says a lot more about her as a person, model and ballerina than the “critic” could ever write or understand.
There are too many experts, graduates of 101s, who love to share their ignorance with the wider world. It is a shame that critics, as Oscar Wilde might have rephrased, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
In England, it’s called getting above yourself when you excel, in Oz, they call it the tall poppy syndrome — it’s wrong but lots of people love it.
As ever, I love to look at your work and try to work out just how you do it. Though I know you often say you don’t know how yourself… that you just get on with it. Personally, I think you get these magnificent shots because you like people and love meeting them. Whatever the magic is, it doesn’t matter — just keep shooting…. and, please invest in some kevlar. I and many others don’t want your mate, Ronnie, to get rich for a long time yet.
Geri Jeter says
A great post. As a photographer, your perspective on this recently maligned dancer is welcome.
Ringer has always been one of my favorites. Like Tina LeBlanc on the other coast, she has a trim, yet womanly, body. The fact that she is not a twig prone to green stick fractures makes her a more secure dancer. Could be that she has the musculature to support her art. Based on his cracks about Ringer, Macaulay would have dissed at their peaks Maya Plisetskaya and Galina Ulanova — arguably two of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century.
BTW — does anyone know if Macaulay has ever danced, or is he just some jaded would-be artist who has found an outlet for his vitriol.
And, as others have said, to do so when he had to have known about Ringer’s publicly known eating disorder issues, is cruel, mean, and destructive, not only for the dancer in question, but to all the young women and men who are thinking about dance as their profession.
I disagree with those who say that as a critic one has to be cruel. I was the dance reviewer for the Las Vegas Weekly and am now writing for the California Literary Review. At no time do I think it necessary to hurl personal attacks at a dancer. Talk about their interpretation, talk about step execution, talk about the choreography, discuss the staging — but leave this kind of personal stuff out of it.
So glad you to see you wrote something on this. Macaulay has all the sensitivity of a brick. As a professional dancer and dance photographer I couldn’t believe what I was reading…
Craig Beyers says
Well. i listened to the Ringer video–what a classy lady!–and read the offending article. The critic didn’t single out Ms. Ringer for criticism, although I don’t know what “glassiness” means for a ballet performance, what with my own 2 left feet and lack of expertise in the dance arts.
But I do recognize beauty and artistry and all of the Ringer photos are stunning. My favorite? The post-shoot photo with Ms. Ringer on point, surrounded by Joe’s images from the monstercam. The pride is clear in her face: “yes, that’s ME and I’ve earned that beauty”. Joe, I’m convinced you could make a dirty brick beautiful, but your images of beautiful people like Ms. Ringer simply enhance your subjects’ natural beauty. They’re an inspiration. Thanks for sharing.
pull those out of your basement! They have to be some of my favorite images of yours! Maybe a photography gallery could put them on display?
Richard Chan says
What a wonderful, marvelous, well-said, compassionate and thoughtful post. Thank you very much!
Charlie Cotugno says
Thank God Mr. Macaulay never saw me in the old dance togs, he probably would have commented that I had eaten one steer too many!
But seriously, great blog and beautiful portraits. Gotta admit I’m a bit bothered that those beautiful Polaroid prints are in a tube in your basement. Have you considered loaning or donating them to a corporate art collection? I know Microsoft has a beautiful fine art collection exhibited throughout its facilities and I’m sure there are many other companies that do the same. Might be worth checking out.
Best of the season to you!
Sensational…Absolutely a sensational Story…Thanks Joe, amd Thank You Jenny.
Eric Muetterties says
Excellent! and Excellent Photos too â˜º
Your writing inspires me to do my own. Your photography does the same.
Thanks for an other great story about a photo which you do such a great job in telling. I am alway draw to hear when you tell about being around a camera. Keep them coming I have become a fan and really like to hear what you have to say.
Steve Jones says
Bravo. Thank you for being a wonderful champion of a beautiful lady. She is indeed a beautiful and talented dancer/person and your heartfelt words did justice to a woman wronged by a man caught up in his warped opinion and job description of who and what his job really is. Another great post. Your words and phrases are often as touching as your beautiful images.
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jim markland says
oops forgot to say …some shots of marcelo here with misty copeland …http://www.rowbotham-cirque.book.fr/galleries/abt/
ballet dancers just make great subjects
John Fowler says
As always – a wonderful story Joe. Thank you for telling it so well. You are a fortunate person to have enjoyed the life experiences you’ve had, and a gracious person to share them so eloquently with us all.
This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things you have ever written. In fact it is almost as amazing as the Polaroid images you and Jennifer created.
Personally I never take the words of critics seriously. Those who can do those who cannot become critics, and quite useless.
Thank you for a wonderful blog, full of useful and inspirational images.
gregory peel says
I know this is about the lady, her beauty in and out, her grace. I’ve always admired your photography and had the pleasure of attending your Dobbs workshop. Your writing is so moving and inspiring that I must express its beauty to me as well.
When you’re too old to push the shutter, have the nurse lift your fingers over the computer keyboard. You’re a great writer–both you and your wife.
Ronny Hermans says
Great story and pictures (if I can call them that) , its with dancers as with photographers, they (I wouldn’t dare to call me either i just try to get a picture 🙂 are their own worst critiques.
On the other hand I don’t like people who write that something is wrong because the look to ‘Fat’ in their view. I’m sure she is doing more than the critique who only has to break things down.
Just a question, can you post some shots of that super huge polaroid camera, I can’t find any on the internet.
Kevin H. Stecyk says
Joe, Beautiful words complimenting beautiful photographs of a beautiful ballerina. Thank you!
What a wonderfully written article, thank you Mr. McNally for your thoughts.
Excellent post. I think that too many Critics have seen how “famous” they might become from emulating Simon Cowell.
Mathieu Wauters says
an apt post for an apt person. in awe of the images…as always. Happy holidays. tk.
Louis Pang says
“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” how true! At times, hatred is drummed louder than anything else. It makes it unbearable to put yourself out there as a photographer, teacher or performer. So much courage and resolve is required to stand up out there.
Dave Hutchinson says
I loved your comments Joe. So inspirational…particularly your last two wonderful paragraphs!
In prozac generation (a memoir), the girl pointed out that Balanchine demanded his female dancers be far below healthy body weight. In other words, halfway to death; you die from lack of calories, they’re the food you burn to live. Weirdly, some people don’t know this. You get ill from vitamin/mineral deficiency, you don’t die. Only calories are necessary to life.
With a daughter in dance, I’m more than just a little concerned that ballet masters/mistresses, (with a few exceptions) still seem obsessed with the Balanchine’s “perfect” physique. Especially when respected critics like Macaulay emphasize it. There will be many young dancers who will never reach their dreams because of such unrealistic expectations.
And the position of the ring finger on the left hand? That’s not completely facetious — I’ve had dancers dismiss my images for less affronts to their art.
Oh yeah, great article and images. I’ve shared it with my daughter and her company. Hopefully, they’ll recognize their hard work can pay off without having to compromise on their health or self-image.
Salsa tanfolyam Budapest says
i woundering how pretty are this dancer girls