‘Athletes and artists’: The men of the Paris Opera Ballet

Story highlights

Matthew Brookes took portraits of male dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet

His photos accentuate the dancers' bodies and showcase their strength and creativity

CNN  — 

They are “les danseurs,” the professional male ballet dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. They are the epitome of strength, their bodies acting as machines of poetry with each and every point of their toes.

They are also the subject of Matthew Brookes’ new photo book, which is made up of black-and-white portraits. The book includes a foreword by Marie-Agnes Gillot, a principal dancer and choreographer at the Paris ballet who has witnessed many of the dancers grow and develop.

Shooting under natural daylight both indoors and outdoors, Brookes took the dancers out of the common context of ballet rehearsals and performances. In the photos, the dancers are depicting birds falling from the sky – a less classical-style image Brookes asked them to interpret.

“They came into my world, I came into their world, and we (worked together) in an environment that was completely kind of neutral,” Brookes said. “It’s almost like magic happened – it was a collaboration of what I felt for the dancers and (what) they felt for being put in a safe environment.”

Photographer Matthew Brookes

It is the intersection of two art forms – dance and photography – that makes Brookes’ photos so palpable, with the dancers appearing as though they are both inanimate and animate – like sculptures coming to life before our very eyes.

Shooting in black and white, Brookes captures creativity in its most raw and intimate form. He says black and white allowed him to accentuate and focus on the muscles and structures of the dancers’ bodies.

“I photographed them more like athletes than pure dancers,” Brookes said. “It wasn’t about so much the art of dance but more about the strength of dance. Their bodies are so indicative of bodies of strength and hard work.”

One of the images Brookes finds most interesting and surprising is No. 11 from the gallery above, which he says is a movement reminiscent of Gillot.

The photo shows dancers forming a kind of mirror image of each other. With the dancers extending one leg in the air while their other rests firmly on the ground, Brookes compares the structure of the dancers’ bodies to a flower.

He noted how in ballet the male dancers tend to be less of a focus compared to the ballerinas.

Social media

  • Follow @CNNPhotos on Twitter to join the conversation about photography.

    “There’s not many male ballet dancers out there that people know of, but they know a lot about female ballerinas,” Brookes said. “It was something that I hadn’t seen much of and I thought it might be an interesting project to focus on the boys.”

    The photos provide a different dimension to this dance style as well, challenging viewers’ perceptions of ballet.

    “It seems quite natural for a young girl to be a ballerina, but for boys it’s like there’s a huge stigma attached to that,” Brookes said. “These boys are incredible, incredible athletes. … It’s just a love of dance and movement.”

    Brookes, who comes from a background in fashion and grew up around sports, says he knew nothing about the world of ballet prior to this. Working with the dancers ignited his curiosity.

    “The more I learned about it, the more I was fascinated and the more I became aware of how brilliant these ballet dancers are – what incredible athletes and artists they are,” Brookes said. “Each one had an incredibly different spirit. They were also gentle souls and kind and generous people with their time.

    “They’re such creative people and sensitive people. … They are from this world where everything has to be criticized and analyzed and it can always be better. But at the same time, they still have the heart to compliment each other. That was just really lovely to see.”

    Matthew Brookes is a photographer based between New York and Paris. You can follow him on Instagram. His photo book, “Les Danseurs,” is published by Damiani and available for pre-order on Amazon.