Intimate ballet portraits showcase the 'Art of Movement'

Story highlights

  • Two photographers began taking portraits of dancers to create art for their daughters
  • The photos capture the art and athleticism of some of today's best dancers

(CNN)Deborah Ory discovered dance photography when she could no longer be a dancer herself.

While she was a dance major at the University of Michigan, Ory suffered a career-ending stress fracture in one leg. Feeling depressed and lost, she came home to find her father's new camera on the kitchen table, still in the box. She borrowed it, wondering whether the creative lens of photography might help her find a new passion.
Soon, Ory was taking photography classes and capturing on film the dance rehearsals she couldn't participate in. It was an immediate fit, marrying her knowledge of dance with an eye for movement.
    "I'm not sure I would've found my way to photography if I didn't have the injury," Ory said. "It just seemed like such a natural thing. I felt like documenting it was how I could express myself and I was so upset about being injured."
    Though photography became the guiding force for her career as an editor for magazines like Mirabella and House & Garden, Ory didn't photograph dancers after college.
    But then, she and her husband, fashion photographer Ken Browar, started looking for inspiring imagery of popular ballet dancers for their daughters' bedrooms. Sarah and Jenna, both aspiring dancers attending the American Ballet Theatre School, looked up to the dancers associated with the American Ballet Theatre company. After an exhaustive and ultimately fruitless search for the kind of images they were looking for, Ory and Browar decided to take the photographs themselves.
    In 2014, they made their first foray, reaching out to ABT principal dancer Daniil Simkin and setting up a studio in their loft apartment. Not only did Simkin agree to be photographed, he started recommending other dancers and helping the couple connect with other principals.
    The NYC Dance Project was born -- "out of love" -- and the couple started posting their images to social media. They would treat each dancer like a celebrity, doing an interview in addition to the photo session. It gave fans a new type of insight into the ballet world and some of its young stars, including Misty Copeland, who became the renowned company's first female African-American principal.
    Soon, popular dancers from around the world were asking to take part. The couple realized they had more than enough images with a cohesive style to create a book. And due to the sometimes ephemeral nature of a career in dance, they wanted to share "The Art of Movement" as quickly as possible.
    The photos capture a diverse group of some of the best dancers of our time at their peak.
    "I felt they were dancers who were really expressive and moved really well," Ory said. "There are a variety of different types of techniques and movement qualities in the book, as well as contemporary and ballet dancers."
    In addition to providing striking portraits, many of the dancers scrawled messages across Sarah and Jenna's bedroom walls.
    The living room studio was a cozy environment, one where the girls or the family's cats would often walk through a shot. The dancers loved it, sometimes not wanting to leave, Browar said. Some even asked to be photographed with the cats, who nonchalantly napped on tutus or disrupted more than a few shots of dancers leaping through the air. Browar says most of his retouching involved removing cat tails from images.
    The blank backdrops also provided a canvas to showcase stunning movements and colorful outfits.
    "It's one of the reasons we ended up keeping it in the studio instead of going outside, to keep the focus on the dancer and movement and really show who they were without being distracted by any kind of architectural details or landscape in the background," Browar said.
    At first, Browar and Ory were both taking photos with different cameras, which they found created a competitive environment. And as a fashion photographer, Browar tried to direct the dancers with very little knowledge of ballet.
    "I had one dancer come up to me to explain that the body didn't move that way," he said.
    The couple learned to work together, collaborating on lighting and photography. Ory handled the styling, and they were aided only by a hair and makeup artist. They used a slow camera and strobes, taking one photo at a time rather than a continuous stream of images. This helped create intensely sharp images, freezing the graceful motion of the dancers in time.
    It took some time to capture the right moment when each dancer was perfectly suspended in air or even taking a breath before starting a pose. They felt it was important to focus on showcasing both the artist and the athlete within each dancer, as well as the emotions associated with their movements. The dancers, perfectionists themselves, were often their own toughest critics and wanted to execute their movements perfectly. For this reason, each session lasted four or five hours, but no one seemed to mind.
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    Ory and Browar found themselves becoming friends with the dancers during the collaborative sessions, something that never happened when Browar photographed celebrities or fashion ads.
    "They have been really supportive of us, and we attend their performances," Ory said. "I think all of this has been really incredible for my kids, especially. They come home from school, and Misty Copeland is at our house."