To communicate without speaking: an idea that sings of freedom and power to a young boy who is bullied for the way he speaks, an idea that provides expression and release to dancers across the globe, an idea that Steven Caras discovered when he first observed the art of ballet on the Ed Sullivan show when he was a child.
The dream of becoming one of these master-communicators was immediately born, and Caras became obsessive over the idea of being a ballet dancer for the first 15 years of his life. Once he realized his dream of taking a ballet class, his love affair with classical ballet was finally underway. Caras continued his dance journey, going on to study at the Joffrey Ballet School. He would eventually dance for the New York City Ballet, under the guidance of the company’s influential co-founder George Balanchine.
When Caras was 25, he lost his favorite role to a newcomer in the company. It served as a rude reality check for Caras, and reminded him that ballet careers are shortlived, or in the way Caras states it, “The wings loosen and then they fall and then you join the planet with the rest of the mortals.” To cope with his newfound mortality, Caras began exploring another passion and mode of communicating without speaking: photography.
He went from the stage to the wings, from being applauded to being shushed, from having the lead role to being behind the camera. The side hobby of snapping photos between his parts on stage soon evolved into a fervor that consumed him. He began capturing everything he saw at the company. He caught moments of privacy, of performance, of posed technique.
This new way of experiencing dance through photography catapulted Caras into a new creative career. People responded differently to his shots than they did to other dance-photographers. They trusted Caras. They knew that he understood ballet more intimately than almost anyone else.
When discussing his creative processes, Caras stated that the hardest part is the selection—he has over 12,000 photographs in his portfolio. But once he visited the Palmer Gallery, this process became easier. He laid eyes on the gallery and immediately thought: black and white. “It sort of inspires [the] imagination to go a little bit further,” Caras explained. He also sought to display a wide array of photographs. There are candid behind-the-scenes views, posed portraits, thrilling action shots and a solo color photo capturing George Balanchine’s final bow.
The photos themselves offer rare insight into the world of dance. Because dancers appear as ethereal stage-inhabitants to the common person, seeing them in raw moments of privacy inflicts a feeling of deep intimacy onto the viewer. The black and white coloring emphasizes this feeling. It’s simple and gritty. It pulls the viewer in to look closer and deeper at these enigmatic subjects.
In one photo, “Pre-preformance dressing room portrait,” a shirtless male dancer sits at a dressing table applying makeup. The camera captures his profile as he gazes at himself in the mirror, completely unaware that anyone is watching him. The photo fosters a connection between audience and performer that cannot be found anywhere else.
Like this piece, many of the photographs in Caras’ exhibition display male dancers. As Caras himself was bullied growing up for taking ballet, the prevalence of male subjects in his work speaks to the unique experience of the male ballet dancer. One photo, “Studio portrait,” displays the backside of a male dancer as he reaches backward for something the viewer cannot see. His form is loose, as if he is falling toward something. His back is completely nude, highlighting a vulnerability that every dancer must feel at some point in their career.
In contrast to the more intimate shots, there is a collection of creative portraits that highlight the movement of the human body. One shot displays two dancers on skis leaning forward into themselves, creating the illusion of a lack of gravity. The dancers seem to be drawn to each other by some unseen magnetic force. Above this shot is one of a male dancer, mid-air. His legs are pretzeled and his torso leans forward over his legs. The third photo in the display is another mid-air shot, the dancer’s legs propped to the side and his arms sticking forward, holding a hat. These three shots displayed together speaks to the physical performance that the human body, or rather the dancer’s body, is capable of.
The crown jewel of the collection is the colored shot of George Balanchine’s final bow. Balanchine was the co-founder of the New York City Ballet and trusted mentor of Caras, and his impact on the ballet world is far and wide—he’s often been nicknamed “the father of American ballet.” The shot shows Balanchine holding open a jeweled curtain as he looks modestly into the apathetic crowd. The viewer can see the company behind the curtains affectionately observing Balanchine as he makes his walk from behind the curtain to receive his applause. The side perspective of the photo provides a kind of intimacy very different from what a front-facing shot could offer, as it simulates looking into something you’re not necessarily meant to see. The combination of the dancers in the background, the flowers beneath Balanchine’s feet and the fact that the photo was taken by someone who knows Balanchine creates an emotional piece that speaks to the whole of American ballet culture.
“Steve Caras: A Dancer Captures Dance” offers a small glance into the world of ballet. It speaks of experience, passion and connection. The collection will be on display until Oct. 18.