Elegant, powerful, beautiful, graceful – so many adjectives could be used to describe the dancers featured in the NYC Dance Project. With a combined background of dance and photography, Ken Browar and Deborah Ory capture the exact moments when dancers are at their best, shining the spotlight on an art form that takes many years of determination to perfect. New York City, the modern metropolis, is their stage, and the flowing movement they masterfully create is their artwork.
We got in contact with Ken and Deborah to ask them a few questions about the series. Read our interview with them, below.
Above: Miriam Miller, New York City Ballet
Ashley Ellis, Principal with Boston Ballet
Who are the artists behind NYC Dance Project?
NYC Dance Project was created by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, who live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (with two teenage ballet students). We have created this site to showcase the world of dance and dancers, based in New York City. Ken’s passion for dance began when he lived in Paris and photographed dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet. His fashion work has appeared in Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and many other European fashion magazines. Deborah has been a dancer since age 7, and her passion for this art is evident in her photography. She began her photography career while injured as a dancer; photographing the rehearsals she could not be in due to her injury. After moving to New York City, working as a photo editor at magazines such as House & Garden, Mirabella and others, she began shooting editorial work for Self, Health, Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple.
How did the NYC Dance Project begin?
The inspiration for the project came from decorating our 13-year-old daughter Sarah’s room. Sarah is an aspiring ballerina and wanted her room filled with dance photographs. We made extensive searches at bookstores, on the Internet (Amazon, EBay and others) and galleries. We purchased books, calendars and other photos and to our disappointment were not able to find images of the current dancers that Sarah admired. There were beautiful images of famous dancers from past generations – such as Baryshnikov or Markova, taken more than 40 years ago – but nothing of the current stars. We decided we needed to photograph these dancers ourselves. We are fans of Daniil Simkin, a Principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and sent him an email asking him if he would like to work with us. He agreed and after a successful photo shoot, he arranged for other Principal dancers to work with us and before long NYC Dance Project was officially launched. Word spread in the dance community and dancers from all over approached us to collaborate. The project quickly evolved and, one year later, we have photographed many of the world’s most celebrated dancers, choreographers and artistic directors.
What makes you most excited about the project?
We have both been really excited to work with such talented artists. It’s been such a pleasure working with people who move so well and are great performers. Dancers are generally determined people and won’t be satisfied until the image looks just right. They will work with us until the images are perfect.
Jacqueline Green, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre
James Whiteside, Principal with American Ballet Theatre
Calvin Royal III, American Ballet Theatre
How do you find your dance subjects to photograph?
It’s been a combination of using some of our favorite dancers from the companies we have seen perform, as well as dancers referring us to others they think would be interesting for our project. Many of the dancers have seen our work and contacted us directly to work with us. We also are constantly researching and looking for upcoming talent and artists we think would be a good fit for our project.
You capture some amazing poses. Do you ask your models to pose or does the action happen more naturally?
The images are always a collaboration between both of us and the dancers. We discuss what type of emotion we are trying to capture in the images and work with movement that expresses this feeling. As the dancer moves, we pick specific moments to work on and refine those.
As a photographer, what kind of moments are you trying to capture?
The images capture the simple moments such as the breath the dancer takes before a jump. The project is a celebration of bodies and movement. Dancers must simultaneously be artists and athletes; both qualities are highlighted in our photographs. We also try to capture the personality of the dancer – we think of these images as portraits of the artist.
Stella Abrera, Soloist with American Ballet Theatre
Tiler Peck, Principal with New York City Ballet
Artem Ovcharenko, Principal with the Bolshoi Ballet
What is something about dancers that most people wouldn’t know?
How much these dancers eat! It’s a myth that most dancers don’t eat, they just exercise so much they burn off the calories and constantly need to refuel. What most people really don’t know or understand is how difficult it is to be a dancer, the hardships they face, the hours they put in each day and the years it takes to learn this art form. We can testify to this working with them on our shoots and getting to know them each personally.
You conduct thorough interviews in each NYC Dance story. How do they impact the overall story?
We both come from an editorial background and wanted to share more than the photos with our readers. We wanted to share more of an insight as to who these dancers are outside of the dance studio. As we have asked each dancer similar questions, our readers can really learn about their personalities by their differing responses. Some of our dancers are featured not only because of the quality of their dancing, but because of their personal stories. Jenelle and Samantha Figgins are twins who trained together growing up and went their separate ways – with one in a ballet company and one in a modern dance company. Their interview focuses on how they have supported each other and what it is like to have a twin in the same very competitive field. Julian MacKay went to Russia to study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy at age 11 and stayed there for 6 years. We talked to him about growing up in Russia and being immersed in a completely different lifestyle as a child. Misty Copeland talked with us about being the first black dancer to perform “Swan Lake” with American Ballet Theatre.
Long term, what you are you looking to accomplish with your project?
We are working on putting together a coffee table book of the images and interviews. We also would love to have an exhibition of images and a gallery (we are constantly getting requests to purchase images). We are also starting to get more involved in the dance world, not only photographically. We just helped to produce a performance with one of the first dancers we photographed, Lloyd Knight, a Principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company. It’s a benefit performance to raise money and awareness for the victims of the Nepal earthquake. We’ve been working closely with Daniil Simkin on his “Intensio” performances that will at the Joyce Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow and will tour worldwide.
Sebastian Vinet, Ballet di Santiago
Peter Boal and Carla Krbes, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet
All images courtesy of the New York Dance Project