In the course of writing a recent ballet review, I noticed that the photographs provided were credited to former American Ballet Theatre dancer Rosalie O’Connor, and immediately recalled that I had never seen a photograph taken by her that failed to capture the moment perfectly or to provide insight into the picture’s subject.
Over tea at her apartment several weeks ago we met and discussed photography, ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, stage fright, dancers she’s known and worked with, and among other things, the story behind a crescent moon-shaped pendant that she wears. I found that we share many common interests, observations, and passions. What was supposed to be, at most, a one-hour interview stretched to nearly three hours, much of which was spent admiring her private collection of photographs. The time flew by.
Rosalie (she prefers to be called by her first name) is the type of person who you meet for two seconds and instantly feel like you’ve known, and been friends with, all your life. She still looks the ballerina, as if the passing years have had no physical impact. But she has no airs, is extraordinarily well-spoken and remarkably perceptive, and has an obvious passion for life in general and dance and dancers in particular. When I call a dancer by his/her first name, it’s because that’s what balletomanes do; when she does, it’s because she knows them. And how she does what she does so well. Her voice has the timbre of liquid crystal, liberally mixed with honey, and her eyes light up when she talks, and sparkle when she laughs – which we both did a lot.
JH: I remember you from when you were with the corps at ABT. As far back as I can remember, I focused on individual dancers when I watched ballet as much as the ballet itself, and much more so when I’d seen the ballet dozens of times. Particularly younger dancers; I like watching dancers grow. Every dancer with a professional company has ability or they wouldn’t be there – so that wasn’t what I looked for. It’s a special quality that distinguishes one from the others. For you, after I figured out who you were, what struck me was a certain sweetness, a warmth, that you brought to your movement. And when we first started communicating, I wrote back to you at one point that you write the way you danced. I knew that the impression I had of you from the stage was, at least in part, a reflection of the ‘real’ you.
RO: Thank you. No one had ever said that before. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone remembers that I danced. (laughs)
Were you at Wendy [Whelan]’s performance?
That’s a very nice pendant (commenting on a crescent moon pendant she was wearing).
Thanks. There’s a story about that; I’ll tell you later.
Wasn’t it amazing (referring to Ms. Whelan’s farewell)?
I’d never seen a ‘farewell’ with such joy, all around.
Yes, and the theater was filled with dance people, bottom to top. It was a who’s who, all the way up to the fourth ring where I was.
You were in the fourth ring? I was right there. We probably passed each other. If I’d only known (laughs).
(Laughs) We could have waved.
I’ve reviewed other ‘farewells’ before – I remember Alessandra Ferri’s so well.
You’re going to remember it again (laughs). The pictures are right here (smiling and pointing to one of several books of photographs she had set aside to show me).
Aww. But that was tearful and sad, as well as celebratory. This was different.
I know that one of your passions is photographing animals, and that you have a website: NYCMenagerie.com. Do you have pets yourself?
Unfortunately, no. I used to, and wish I could now, but I travel so much for my photography that it would be unfair to leave them alone.
When did you start taking pictures?
Age 6. They were pretty bad (laughs). I used a little Kodak. The kind you put a cartridge in. It couldn’t have been simpler.
I know those. I used them too. But I was older (laughs). Did you take pictures mostly of animals?
Yes. I’d take pictures at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. And I’d take pictures of my cats (zoo cats: lions; tigers, etc.). And I’d get so frustrated at adults who’d take pictures of the animals through their zoom lenses. I had lens envy at a young age (laughs). But I took myself and my camera and get close to them.
That’s what I named the one book I’ve published, about photographing dancers. I called it “Getting Closer”. That’s what I always wanted to do. You look at my zoo photos, and you’re looking for the tiger, but you don’t see the full animal. There’s this wide, close-up.
Yes. I remember seeing a wonderful close-up photo of a giraffe.
Hah. Yes. That was taken at the San Diego Zoo. It was my fortieth birthday. I opted to go to the zoo on my fortieth birthday (laughs)
Were you born in New Orleans?
No. I was born in Vienna, Austria, but we moved to New Orleans when I was very little.
Many years ago I met a young girl in a summer program in one of my wife’s ballet classes who moved to New Orleans – after becoming a well-known singer/songwriter. I used to videotape those classes, back when videocameras were bigger than I was, and I’d focus on her, because there was something about her that was particularly intriguing and compelling, qualities that later came out in her songs.
So I know a little bit about using your eyes and a camera to try to go beneath the surface. It’s one of the things I particularly admire about your photographs – your studio photos and head shots in particular. They’re more than just pictures. There’s something about the way you photograph people that brings out their personality.
Is there a secret to how you do it, or is it just that the personality is so obvious and so magnetic that it’ll come out in the picture no matter what?
I don’t do a lot of ‘staged’ shots. Usually I take portraits in this very room. My first head shot was of Gillian Murphy in 1997. It was her first too!
These are people I have a lot of history with – we go way, way, way back. So I think that puts people at ease. There’s no pretense; no barriers to break through.
For me, the secret of being able to see ‘beyond the face’ is that you need to show expression in the eyes. To do that, you need them to be engaged; to come forward physically, towards the camera. I speak a lot, describe what I want and try to draw people out.
One of the things I see in pictures that you take is a reflection of what I think of as stage personas. Rightly or wrongly, I see personalities on stage that I think reflect their real personalities. It may not be a true reflection at all – but of those dancers I’ve met, I’ve found it to be true. Like you. You really are, or at least seem to be in conversation with you, the way you appeared to be on stage. Your pictures capture that.
Like the pictures you took of Gillian…and also of Sarah Lane. Your picture reflects the personality of each that I see on stage.
Yes, I like doing head shots, partly for that reason.
Is there a type of photograph you enjoy doing most: portraits; in-performance, rehearsals, class?
(Without hesitation) I love photographing rehearsals.
I was very privileged when I started photographing ABT, in 1996, to have unlimited access to rehearsals. If I had a rare night off, I could go anywhere I wanted. I could be in the dressing rooms, the wings; I could be out front; anywhere! And I had the unions’ permissions, the artistic staff; the dancers; and the stage managers. Everyone was behind me. Pre-digital was such a different animal. I photographed with 35mm film for my first six years. I especially loved being in rehearsals and documenting the process. When in a theater, my preference is to be in the wings. Out front, you see what everyone else is seeing. In the wings, ballets often look completely different; I liked getting closer.
I understand what you’re saying. But the pictures of yours that I’ve seen taken from somewhere in the audience are as fabulous as they are because you hit the moment. Exactly.
It’s because I know so many of these ballets; I’ve danced so many of them! I know what’s coming next, and quite often on what count!
But even if I haven’t ever seen a piece before, I can go in cold turkey, and photograph. Because I was a dancer, I can see the transitions, and they lead me. It’s like reading a different language, visually.
Do you ever take a sequence of photographs and then pick the one that hits the right moment?
I think you mean rapid-fire, where you keep your finger down on the shutter button. I do not.When I attend an open press call, I can often identify by sound the photographers who don’t know dance well, because that’s how they’re photographing it. It becomes a sport – like target practice – when photographers shoot that way, in my opinion. They’re not selecting the moment; they’re capturing every moment knowing they’re going to get one image by default. It’s a different approach than mine.
Also, I started to truly learn and memorize the timing of certain dancers. How Angel [Corella] got into a jump was different from, say, how José [Carreño] or Ethan [Stiefel] did. And you start to understand whether they’re going to hit it right away, or they’re a little slower. Same thing with a balance. Some dancers suspend, suspend, suspend, and then take a breath. So you don’t take the shot ‘here’, you take it moments later. But you can’t take it when they’re falling off their leg! There’s that millisecond in between.
The secret to all of it is always being ready. If you aren’t ready, and wait until you see the moment, you’ve missed the shot. If you see it, then it’s gone.
Were you exposed to dance photographers growing up in New Orleans?
Yes, there was a photographer, Matt Anderson, who used to come into our classes and photograph. He wasn’t there daily, but he was there often and therefore a familiar presence; and he would slink around quietly taking pictures. So it wasn’t unusual for me to see a photographer in a ballet class. Matt documented me from age 10 in “Turn of the Screw”, as Clara at age 12 and until I moved to NYC at age 15. All the photographs I have of myself as a young dancer, he took. He had an excellent eye as a dance photographer.
Then when I came to New York, there were ABT photographers documenting the process. Paul B. Goode, was the main company photographer and he was constantly in rehearsals.
From the beginning, having a photographer in classes and rehearsals felt normal. Not everyone has that experience.
Getting back to the beginning. How did you get interested in ballet?
It was a pediatrician who recommended that I start lessons.
Not a mother pushing her daughter to take ballet classes?
Nope, not at all. I was very hyper-extended as a little girl. Even more so than I was as a dancer. My mother asked the pediatrician if there was anything that could be done to strengthen my legs. His response was to put me in ballet class.
Actually, when I was born in Vienna, I was born with one leg turned out. So as a baby I was in a cast, with my leg turned in (laughs). Isn’t it ironic? (laughs a lot). They should have turned the other one out (both of us laugh). My mother was afraid it’d be a walking impediment. She’d seen that before, not corrected, in other people in her life, and didn’t want that for me.
My pediatrician in New Orleans said ballet would be perfect for strengthening my legs. I was in my first “Nutcracker” at age 4. 1974. I was one of four Sugar Plum Fairy Pages. And I actually have a picture of it. A close family friend was a good amateur photographer, and she took a picture at a dress rehearsal.
So that’s the beginning; that’s how it all started. It wasn’t until age 10 when I started to become serious about it. By age 12, when I spent my first summer away in New York at SAB [School of American Ballet], I knew that this was what I wanted. It was so thrilling! And I was never scared; I just felt like I was in the right place. I was excited to be here, and to see other girls, just like me at age 12, from around the country, and some from abroad. It really opened up a world of possibilities for me.
It must have been quite a revelation; an epiphany.
It was. In the summer NYCB and ABT were both in season performing. And there were open classes to take, which at that time were at David Howard’s studio. Or go take a Robert Denvers’ class. And it was just like the Wendy Whelan performance. Everyone was there!
When were you hired by ABT?
In 1987, by Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov]. I had just finished my second full year at SAB, and I was 17. I remember they told my C-2 class that we should all go to the ABT cattle call. ABT kept 10 of us, and invited us to take company class at The Met. It went well, and Misha offered me a corps contract.
What was the atmosphere like at ABT then?
Serious, focused and exciting. There was a lot of emphasis on touring; we did a full 13-week tour then, which was a shock to pack for. We’d go from Miami to Chicago in February, then on to San Francisco and LA. I learned a lot.
What was Misha like to work with, and for?
It was quite literally a dream come true. He was not around consistently, my first year, because he had that arrangement with ABT. I’ve heard that he was paid $1 a year to be Artistic Director, with the understanding that he could take on other projects – such as movies and even a perfume in his name. When he was with us, he taught company class.
It was in my second year that I worked with him a lot more. That’s when he choreographed his production of “Swan Lake”. We had 12 weeks of rehearsals. I recall Susan Jones going down the line adjusting our heads in Act II; it was that meticulous.
I saw Misha’s “Swan Lake” when it debuted here. I know it didn’t get the greatest reviews, but I loved it. I thought the changes he made were interesting; it was a very intelligent re-working.
I loved it too. I’m glad to hear you say that.
Misha was there, every day of that 12 week rehearsal period, putting everything he had into it. He could demonstrate any role. Czardas, Von Rothbart, Odette/Odile, a Princess, Benno, a Swan. It didn’t matter. He could just show you, and it would be perfect. It was so important to have had that experience. I’m so grateful for it.
ABT had guest artists then, right?
Yes, I remember Andris Liepa coming in for a “Swan Lake”, and Farouk Ruzimatov and Altynai Asylmuratova as well; Maximova and [Vladimir] Vasiliev danced a final “Giselle” at The Met, and Nureyev danced a “Giselle” with Marianna [Tcherkassky] in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium. Years later, I watched him conduct “Romeo and Juliet” while I stood onstage in the Ballroom. Remarkable. There were so many special moments that happened.
Was there a sense then that the appearances of guest artists precluded the advancement of ABT’s own dancers?
It didn’t feel that way to me. These guest artist appearances were special occasions. I witnessed many dancers from within be developed and groomed. I watched Julie Kent be developed into Julie Kent the ballerina.
When did you leave ABT?
2002. I danced with the company for fifteen years.
I remember that before your injuries you had begun getting featured roles. In the back of my mind I remember Bathilde [in “Giselle”].
Yes. I loved that role.
One of the most significant roles for me personally was as the Summer Fairy in “Cinderella.” Ben Stevenson cast me in that. I’ve portrayed Queens in both “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake”.
Effie, in “La Sylphide”, was one of my favorite acting roles. It was a lot of fun. I first performed it with Jeremy [Collins], and later with Angel.
And there were the Tudor roles, and de Mille. I was the Ranch Owner’s Daughter [in “Rodeo”], and in the filming of “Jardin aux Lilas”, I danced Caroline’s best friend. I loved performing the third girl in “Fancy Free”. And I was in the corps in “Leaves” [Are Fading].
I loved that piece. The funny thing is that I thought that having Gelsey [Kirkland] partnered by Jonas Kage wouldn’t work at all. But it did. I remember the moment when Gelsey balanced on Kage’s thighs. I lost it; I totally lost it.
We have the same taste in ballets!
If you had had the opportunity to dance other roles, lead roles, what roles would you have wanted to dance?
(Thinks a few moments) I’m not going to have a typical answer to your question– most female dancers may say Juliet. I had very bad stage fright – to the point where I sought help from a neurologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
I actually took medication, when performing, for stage fright throughout my career.
I have a benign familial tremor in my hands, notably in my left hand, and when the stage fright meets the tremor during performances, it often felt debilitating. The neurologist I saw understood my issues and she assessed what my prescription cocktail should be for performance– I took a combination of Inderol and Xanax. Xanax is used by most people to sleep, but it was exactly what I needed to get through standing in fifth position for the first 32 counts of “Theme” [and Variations], or to survive the ramp in “La Bayadère”.
I had the most trouble whenever I had to stand still for long periods of time. I was affected most in all the white acts: “Giselle”, “Bayadère”, “Swan Lake”. And the opening of “Theme”. I once told a therapist in a session of my problem at the start of “Theme”. She had me show her the fifth position and she suggested that to distract my mind that I sing the music in my head. That helped a lot.
To get back to your question….as a result, it was the acting roles that I felt most confident and comfortable in. I am so happy that I was cast in original works by Mark Morris and with Agnes [de Mille]. I have no regrets as to what I didn’t dance. My career as a dancer felt quite full, always challenging and complete.
So none of the standard operating leading roles interested you?
It wasn’t that they didn’t interest me, I just wasn’t that technically strong. I wasn’t in the running for the obvious dream roles of female dancers.
Actually, now that I think about it, there is one featured role I would love to have done. Carabosse! Perhaps someday an opportunity will present itself…
Hah! Glinda goes over to the dark side. I love it.
While you were performing, were there dancers you particularly admired?
(Thinks a moment) Yes. When I first joined the company, Cynthia Gregory and Martine Van Hamel were still dancing. In 1975, Marianna Tcherkassky guested as “Giselle” in New Orleans, with Fernando [Bujones]. I got her autograph. When I joined ABT, I watched her dance Giselle, and as a Willi, particularly in the first entrance, I tried to emulate her ‘toe-ball-heel’ walks to look as if she were walking on a cloud. I was trying so, so hard to do it like Marianna. To this day, I remember many of the corrections that Susan Jones gave me throughout my career, but I remember that during one Act II rehearsal at 890 [Broadway, ABT’s New York studios] she singled me out and praised my walks. It was all because I was imitating Marianna (laughs a lot).
Watching these legends up close was incredible – Natasha [Natalia Makarova] came in my first year to dance Juliet. That was the live PBS broadcast from Lincoln Center when Kevin [McKenzie] accidentally kept his sweat pants on in the crypt scene (we both laugh, a lot). I was standing in the wings watching, opposite Misha. We all were in disbelief (sucks air into her lungs), and it was LIVE! Those sweatpants were later auctioned off. Kevin wrote the story down one leg, with a black Sharpie. He’s got a good sense of humor about it now.
What about dancers today? Are there…
(Instantly) Lauren Lovette with NYCB.
(Laughs). Why does that not surprise me?
I think she’s a stunning dancer. I photographed her as a student at SAB, and as a choreographer at The New York Choreographic Institute. And I’m watching her grow with City Ballet and each new role. I’m always thrilled to see her dance.
Are there other current dancers who particularly impress you? I know the diplomatic answer is all of them; you have to deal with these people all the time.
I’m not trying to be diplomatic, there are just so many!! For instance, I’ve photographed Chase Finlay since he was 8. And just this summer I photographed his first “Fancy Free” at CPYB [Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet]. Moments like that are very meaningful to me.
There’s another relatively new dancer, at ABT. Cassie [Cassandra] Trenary. She’s one that I’ve loved also since she was a student, at JKO [Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School].
Actually, in all the companies that I’ve traveled to work for – Boston Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Ballet Arizona, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – there are fabulous dancers everywhere! I couldn’t possibly name them all. When you ask for favorites – certainly there are, but it’s pretty hard to articulate who they are. I am so lucky to be watching and documenting them all over many, many years.
What you said about fabulous dancers being in companies all over the country, and beyond, is not only true, but very important. When I started going to ballet, I had a very parochial view, and didn’t really care about the regional companies. For people who lived there, these companies were fine, but compared to the New York-based companies, they weren’t in the same league.
Right, and they didn’t travel very much.
Now, they do. And there are superb dancers everywhere. There shouldn’t be any sense in an audience that these dancers are second-rate. They’re not.
That’s right. In Ballet Arizona, for example, there’s a dancer named Jillian Barrell. I loved her from the moment I first saw her.
In preparing for this I looked at many of your photographs online. At random. I picked out the names of some of those dancers you’ve photographed. Can you tell me what comes to mind when I mention their names?
Beautiful, strong, quiet.
A long-time friend. We go way, way back; I still picture him when we met; Ethan was 17.
My first year with ABT, was my senior year of high school. Due to the rigorous tour schedule, I left PCS [Professional Children’s School], and switched to correspondence courses. I only finished one poetry course that year and never resumed – it introduced me to the poetry of Sara Teasdale, so it was worth it. Then in 1990, ABT had an especially bad year, and the dancers gave up ten weeks of work, reducing our contract to 26 guaranteed weeks. I only had four credits left, so I used that time to go back to PCS. I graduated at 21 in the spring, next to Ethan. We had English and Art History together, and became fast friends.
Talented, beautiful, fearless. And with a tremendous jump.
That’s what impressed me most the first time I saw her, in an otherwise forgettable ballet called “Desir”. It was her fearless attack that got to me. I saw you took a picture of her when she was very young.
Yes. I showed her a brochure recently that I’d found in storage. She was featured on the cover of an ABT Summer Course brochure at 15! She squealed “Oh my God, I can’t believe you still have that!” I love Isabella.
Sarah Lane in my mind is quite extraordinary.
I was at a performance of the Youth America Grand Prix where the music cut out, and she was dancing a solo from…I think it was from “Esmeralda”; – and the music stopped. The theater was silent. And Sarah kept going. It was as if she was underwater with her own music. She wasn’t fazed at all. She didn’t miss a moment of the fluidity and the beauty that she was spinning around the entire stage like a web.
I’d never witnessed anything like that. And for someone like me, with stage fright, to watch a moment unfold before me, a mini-disaster really, and to see her triumph…I have so much respect and admiration for how she handled it.
I was very eager to meet her and work with her. And I did soon after. I asked to photograph one of her first principal roles, opposite Herman [Cornejo] in “Theme”; I photographed her “Sleeping Beauty”; took head shots for her. She’s a really interesting, feisty, passionate person.
David’s a very dear friend. I have been photographing David since he was 16. (Pulling out an 11×14 photograph) This is his very first Theme performance, at City Center.
He’s so unbelievably talented. He’s someone who inspires me because he’s constantly reaching and learning; pushing his boundaries. I think he’s very daring by having gone to Russia. He takes risks.
He’s always been very mature for his age. A watcher; an observer. I homed in on that very early on. And he loves to read. The way we became friends – and he jokes about this still – I was finishing a rehearsal in Studio 5, and I walked toward the front of the room to gather up my stuff, and there was David next to my bag, reading my book. He had reached into my bag and had taken it out to take a look. It was Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” And I thought ‘The nerve of this kid! What gives?!’ We bonded after that (laughs).
Alessandra Ferri. Goddess! (laughs) It felt difficult for me to even talk to her because of how in awe I felt. That was true of Susan Jaffe too.
When I had my first performance ever as Bathilde, it was at the Met and the cast was Ferri and Bocca. Imagine that! I wished them luck before the curtain and Alessandra, no doubt sensing my nerves said, “Don’t worry, whatever you do we will follow you.” How generous that was of her!
When I first met him he was only 17; skinny, with a high voice. He came up to me at a water fountain one day and asked me if I’d take some photos of him for an article that was being written about him in Brazil.
Obviously I’ve worked with him a lot since then. He’s such a kind person; such a focused person. And such a tremendous talent. Marcelo is a dancer who works like crazy, but you always feel like he’s got more in reserve.
I wrote after a “Bayadère” performance, a long time ago, that I thought he was the most valuable member of the company. He’s such a great partner.
He is. And his generosity of spirit as a person is unmatched. He sets an incredible example. It seems like there’s nothing he can’t do!
(Laughs) I’ve been photographing that lovely, young talent ever since she was 10 years old.
That’s why she got on this list; I saw so many photos you took of her as a student. I didn’t recognize her at first because she was so young. Pre-“Nutcracker”.
(Taking out a book of photographs) She’s so long limbed… You know who her mother is, don’t you? Denise Roberts Hurlin. Denise was a superb Paul Taylor dancer. After she left the company, she co-founded Dancers Responding to AIDS, [DRA] together with another Taylor dancer, Hernando Cortez. I happily donated my time and images to DRA for ten years.
When I stepped down a year ago I wanted to give Denise a very special present. And I really had the perfect gift! I’d photographed Catherine, as a student at JKO, dancing in Taylor’s “Airs”, which was the first Taylor ballet that her mother danced in when she joined. I enlarged three 8x10s and presented them matted in a triptych. Catherine came up to me later and told me, “You made my Mom cry.” I’ve never quite nailed a gift like I did with that one!
I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Catherine.
When exactly did your dance photography begin?
Do you remember a slightly oversized dance periodical named Dance Ink? Patsy Tarr produced it. It was beautifully done and oversized with stunning imagery. They had frequent competitions at that time. One was that they wanted photographs submitted, and the only stipulation was that it have one of the back-issues of Dance Ink in the picture. As a subscriber this was easy—I used 8-10 back-issues!
I had an idea to use both ABT and NYCB friends in a self-timed image. We met on a day off during the Met season, in Damrosch Park, along the side of the Met. The dancers were: Angel Corella, who was new to the company with virtually no English, Ashley Tuttle, Clinton Luckett, John Selya, and from City Ballet, Yvonne Borree, and Arch Higgins.
It won the contest! Patsy Tarr called to tell me and she reached my father who was visiting. He was so excited—he called me immediately at the Met to leave a message! What a day that was. This image was the catalyst to starting my dance photography career; it was the spring of 1996. I was elated, but it wasn’t until that fall that I began in earnest.
There was a couple, in ABT: Randy Fippinger was a stage manager and Tamara Barden a dancer in the corps. Both were very tech savvy. It was the moment when websites were starting to take off, and most companies didn’t have one. They proposed to ABT creating one – and ABT approved. They secured the domain name, and invited me to contribute by creating the first ABT web photo gallery. They knew I photographed wherever we went on tour: Istanbul, Japan, South Korea. Despite my having a massive library of dance photography books, until then I had never attempted to photograph dance.
Initially I wasn’t sure. I recall exactly where Tamara and I sat and spoke, outside of studio 5 in the dark hallway, when she broached their idea. I actually said no at first. I was concerned – it was my ninth year with the company; I didn’t want to send a mixed message to Kevin.
But I went home; talked to my boyfriend, and he said that there were professional dance photographers vying to get in to do this, and they can’t get in. And you’re already in. You should do it. So then I thought, ok, I’ll try.
And that next spring I blew out my foot in company class at the Met. I had three surgeries, and came back nine months later. My cameras were my lifeline to sanity. I photographed non-stop while hopping around with crutches. Two cameras and two crutches.
Do you think that being a dancer helps your dance photography?
150%. Absolutely everything I know, from age 4 until now, is informed by dance. Everything. My professional career; 15 years. My student years, from 4 -17. The wealth of people I’ve gotten to work with. All of it informs every picture.
And does that give you, as a dancer, an edge over other dance photographers?
Absolutely. I believe that it does. And the other dancers I know who are photographers or were photographers, they all agree with that.
I’m not saying that you can’t be a quality dance photographer not having been a professional ballet dancer. There are very fine photographers who have never danced. But I believe that having a professional background as a dancer allows you to combine your loves and have special insight. You never have to let go of your career; it’s still a part of who I am.
Now I’m capturing careers through my dancer-informed eye. And that is such a rare and special position to have.
I’ve been so lucky. The two things I loved as a little girl – I’ve had careers in both.
Are there any ballet photographers whose work you particularly admire?
Well, from the time I was a little girl, there was this one book that had Steven Caras’ work in it, that had several photographs in it that I memorized every detail of.
He was a dancer himself, with NYCB.
Yes. And also Arthur Elgort, who created a souvenir book for City Ballet that is as close to a dance photography bible as I have, in terms of stunning imagery of the company in costumes, photographed in natural light.
So those were two that I especially loved. I had subscriptions to both Dance Magazine and Ballet News. Another that I love is Pierre Petitjean, who had a book called “Backstage”. And of course, “A Very Young Dancer” was a classic.
What were the first in-performance photos that you took?
On a tour, in Detroit, I photographed “Apollo” from the wings, and then “Rodeo” from the wings, when I wasn’t on. Also in the dressing rooms and backstage.
There was no instant gratification then as we have now. I had to travel back to NYC to get the rolls developed, which of course took time. Of course not all of them were good, but enough were to give me a spark; to make me want to continue.
You said earlier that you enjoyed photographing rehearsals most. Is this because it lets you, and your camera, in on the process; the evolution?
Yes, because in the studio there’s this added layer of the dancer’s personality. There are aspects of people that come out in how they dress, wear their hair; how they present themselves, every day. Which sounds cosmetic, but it’s part of who they are, and it can be very interesting and authentic. What colors do they wear? Do they always wear black tights? Do they wear leg-warmers? Christine Dunham always had this gorgeous French twist.
Are there dancers who you feel, from their performances, that you could see them walking down the street and instinctively have an idea of their ‘real’ personalities?
I would say I feel that way about most dancers.
When I edit, on these monitors (pointing a few feet away), I do a complete analysis; a full body scan, head to toe. Are they blinking? Is there tension in their neck? Is their face tense? Is their shoulder ginched? Is their elbow supported? Is their hand a claw? Knees, turnout, heel forward…just trying to figure out whether it’s a keeper or not.
I study them very intensely, to the point where I sometimes feel, even if I’ve never spoken with a dancer, as if I know them – when in fact, I don’t know them at all. And when that impression doesn’t pan out, it’s a definite disconnect for me.
When I photographed [Natalia] Osipova’s Juliet, opposite David’s Romeo, I was utterly transported by that performance, and those photos I’m really proud of. I’ve photographed her on several occasions: “La Sylphide”, “Giselle”, Juliet. But I’ve gotten into the elevator at ABT with Osipova, and smiled at her perhaps with familiarity, while thinking: I’ve edited hundreds of photos of you. And she turned away and took her phone out.
In addition to the companies that you photograph for regularly, you also work with schools, right?
Yes. I work for many schools: the School of American Ballet; the Juilliard School; North Carolina School of the Arts, the JKO School, Boston Ballet School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marymount Manhattan College and Ballet Academy East.
In your class pictures, it appears that you pick things out that show your ability to focus on dancers, early on, who have a special quality. In an online search, I found the picture I showed you of Bella Boylston, the picture you took of Lauren when she was 18. And I saw one of Angelica Generosa, a dancer who I’d just highlighted in a review of a Pacific Northwest Ballet performance a few days earlier, who I thought no one outside of PNB had ever heard of, that you took when she was 16.
What is it that you see that draws you to young dancers’ capabilities long before they become professionals?
Seeing their talent, beauty, fears, habits, individuality, style, determination and guts with my eye and experience; usually using my70-200mm 2.8 IS lens.
I also saw, in these class pictures, an appreciation of the process. And it feels to me that there’s love in those pictures.
(Smiling) I do feel love when I take those pictures. I love seeing these generations of new dancers grow, and what a privilege it is for me to be chosen by so many of the top schools in the country, to photograph the process.
The other real privilege that I have is that there are almost no clients who try to micro manage me. I’m trusted to come in, and to do what I think I should do; rarely am I given direction. That trust feels good.
Another organization I’ve worked with for ten years now is Rosie [O’Donnell’s] Theater Kids. (Shows me a picture) That’s more of a Broadway world. Her incredible staff goes into the public schools, and I’ve witnessed it both working with Rosie and with City Ballet’s education department, just what an impact these programs have in the public schools.
What are your favorite photos? (We both laugh) Besides the giraffe.
Rosalie and I reviewed photos and books she’d selected for me for the next hour or so.
Here’s Paloma [Herrera] as Juliet.
Beautiful. How old is that picture?
’99, I think. Maybe ’00.
And this is Stephanie Saland at CPYB, coaching. She was one of my favorite favorites. Absolute favorites at NYCB.
Yes. I remember her very well. Whenever I think of her I see ‘Coffee’.
Alessandra and Julio in “Romeo and Juliet.” This is what I mean about the difference in perspective when you photograph from the wings. And they both ordered this picture from me; I thought I would faint. They were so excited about it. And I thought: Wow! I can’t believe it!
This is “Symphony in C”; Paloma about to make an entrance; the wing cutting through.
It feels very ‘old school’; like ‘1950s ballet book photography’, I really like it.
And this is Hee Seo. This was my gift to her, back when she was promoted to soloist. It was a compilation of many parts that she’s done.
I used to make books for the ABT silent auction. Early on, I did a two-week photo journal, on tour, and augmented it with my earliest photos. It shows two weeks in the life of a dancer. And it sold for $1500. That was an unbelievably exciting night for me. My work had been validated on a new level.
And I went on to make books similar to this (showing me), with paper that I bought in Japan. I’d put the photo in first, and then hand tear the paper, because I liked the look of frayed edges overlaying the image. And the difference between this book, which I made just for myself, and the ones I made for auction, is that for those, for example, Gillian could write something about Gamzatti, or a response to the moment in the image beneath a photograph of herself as Gamzatti, and then autograph it. So I had books chock full of all the dancers writing something profound, or witty, and of course, their autographs. I had everyone select different colored inks. And often written in different languages: if it was Guillaume [Graffin], he’d write in French; Yan [Chen], in Chinese; Angel, in Spanish; Giuseppe [Picone], in Italian. And then they’d tell me what they’d said, and below their words I’d pen the translation. I loved creating them. The most that one of my books ever went for at auction was $12,000. There have been several individuals that have always been exceedingly supportive of my photography career.
You can see from these the advantage of being in the wings. Or at the studio; these moments you get. I love candids, and I love atmosphere.And then we go into “Push Comes to Shove”. And in that rehearsal, they didn’t have a hat for Angel, so he was catching an imaginary hat.
That’s John Gardner’s last performance; lifting Amanda [McKerrow] in the bows.
Those are the legs in “Bayadère” from the wings, in Japan.
I love being in the wings, for this reason. And these… (pointing to a pile of self-published one-off books).
You put these together?
Yes. They’re not pictures I can publish, due to rights. I own the copyright, but not the publishing rights. But I can make these books privately and give them to the dancers on special occasions like retirements. I sent one to our First Lady who co-chaired a Met Gala with Caroline Kennedy, with the two of them on the cover, then highlights of the Gala. I received such a lovely letter in response.
This is Julio Bocca’s farewell in Argentina (showing me a photograph of a huge throng of people). He said: ‘if you can get down here, I’ll put you up.” And I got down there. Unreal (laughs).
And this is Freddie Franklin staging “Giselle” for the Joffrey. I photographed for two days, and I loved it. Like Misha during his “Swan Lake”, Freddie showed every part while I was there: from Myrtha, to Albrecht.
This is the first photo I took of Freddie; in 1997. And this was him (showing another picture) before a rehearsal with Joffrey; just taking a moment. Rehearsals are very special to me; it’s a private process that few see.
When I gave Freddie his book, he called me and said (in a breathy voice): “Rosalie; I’m so flabbergasted” (laughs). It was so great! Getting to work with Freddie Franklin was one of the highlights of my life.
This was Angel’s company in Spain, when he debuted “Bayadère”, with Natasha there coaching. That was an amazing experience for me.
This one is very special to me, because they are of master classes at SAB, for its seventy-fifth anniversary. I photographed Arthur Mitchell, Kyra Nichols, Mimi Paul, Ricky Weiss, Helgi Thomasson, Ethan Stiefel, Patty McBride, Jacques D’Amboise, Danny Duell, and Eddie Villella. And if there were one experience that I could just go on and on about, it would be these classes. I just wish I had a tape recorder with me, to record all these classes, and what they said.
Being in class, listening to what people choose to focus on, and pass on, is fascinating to me. I have learned so much as a (retired) dancer, simply by being a dance photographer.
Arthur Mitchell blew my mind. He returned to teach at SAB a couple of months ago, and I photographed his class again. I couldn’t wait to get there. It was that intoxication you were talking about.
Do you see what I mean about the expansiveness of the studio? Like an empty chalkboard. So open; ready.
I know you’re going to want to look at this book (the Ferri Farewell photographs). This book was my gift to her, when she retired.
When I wrote my review of her farewell, I mentioned that as we were walking into the Met, I saw this short, nattily-dressed older man. I don’t know how I knew, but I sensed he was Alessandra’s father. I overheard him say to the person he was walking with, “…but she’s such a leetle girl” – like, all these people are coming to see my daughter, but she’s such a little girl. A couple of years later, at a performance at the Met, I asked her, “Was your father really there?” And she said he was, and that it was an accurate description of him. It was her father.
I never met him, only her mother once, but not her father. Do you remember any of these moments (referring to the Ferri farewell book)?
Are you kidding?
I’m glad you can relive it. Wait till you get to the bows. You’ll start crying.
I already am.
That’s OK. I have tissues (laughs).
For these performance pictures at the Met, there is this little fire-escape type stairway. It goes up to all the different levels and catwalks. But where I am is an area known as ‘the cage.’ You’re not in a shark cage—you go up those steps and there’s a little balcony about 7½ feet up. And you go right out to the proscenium. If I leaned out; or stuck my arm out; the audience would see. You’re sitting in a little ball; very uncomfortable, taking shots from this perspective that allows you to look down a little bit upon the stage.
Unfortunately, companies don’t need any more than maybe five photographs to tell the story to the press in a review. Nobody sees all these other images. So unless I make these books and show them to my personal friends, or people come to my apartment to look at them (laughs), nobody knows the scope of the work. That can be a little bit frustrating. But I’m sure that every photographer has that feeling.
Let me just ask you about a few other photos I noticed when I went through your online images – in addition to the teaching photos and class photos.
One was of Rie Ichikawa, Boston Ballet.
In “Bella Figura”?
Yes. When she’s peering through the curtain.
And I told you about the picture I saw of Sarah and Sascha Radetsky from “The Bright Stream”, which I’d never seen before.
I loved “Bright Stream”. That was a real delight for me to see and photograph.
But you bring another ingredient. You see things differently; your pictures amplify things. What an incredible picture that is. But how did you get that image? Was it posed?
No, it was at the final dress rehearsal at The Kennedy Center. Nothing was posed. There was such a rush for the approvals that immediately following that rehearsal, after I downloaded and pulled a selection, Kevin sat on my left and Alexei [Ratmansky] on my right and gave their approvals and rejects.
Did you know it was coming?
I’d never seen the ballet before. You just have to be ready.
I knew that that’s how it must have been. But I still can’t believe you captured that so perfectly.
It’s being ready; and it’s being in the moment. It’s a flow I get into. And if it’s a ballet I know, sometimes I dance the steps in my head, so I stay in rhythm. Not every dancer has the same musically; some are a little behind; some a little ahead. So you just have to be ready, watching like a hawk.
I often come home and need a hot Epsom salt bath – because I’m standing the whole time, which is not easy; and then I develop tension in my body from anticipation, which is the being ready part—sustained for three hours.
There was also a picture from “Sinatra Suite”, with Herman and Luciana Paris, where he’s lifting her up and she’s looking down at him.
Oh yes. I love that. I’ve photographed that ballet with Ballet Arizona, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and ABT. So some pieces I get to revisit with multiple casts in different companies.
The last one I saw before I left this morning was one of Christine Shevchenko.
Was it the one from “Seven Sonatas,” where she’s swirling around?
I love capturing motion, with costumes, and when the hair is down. To add a sense of movement. Because when you’re freezing a moment, with a super-fast shutter, you’re cutting things out; changing the experience from what the viewer’s getting.
One last question, which I said we’d get back to…that crescent moon pendant around your neck.
I had my very first photography-related hand surgery this past July 29th. It was a lot more significant a surgery than I’d anticipated. I was sidelined for a couple of months. It stemmed from holding my 70-200mm lens, which sits like this in the palm of my hand, (demonstrates). But I have very fine bones…and it’s a lot of weight.
So, similar to being a dancer, I had a bone spur that developed in my hand. And then a cyst developed, which was quite pronounced. I saw a surgeon who treated it for almost two years; four times he aspirated it, but each time the cyst came back. It wasn’t painful.
The surgeon said to me that if I had it surgically removed, there’d be a scar straight across. I didn’t even ask about a scar – I think that doctors think that women get hysterical if there’s a scar. I’m not that type of person.
My surgery was performed by the chief surgeon at Mt. Sinai, Dr. Charles P. Melone. And he had met briefly with Eleanor D’Antuono years before, so he was excited to meet another dancer. At the end of our first meeting, he said ‘…just so you know…there’d be this scar, and it’d go about just this far across (indicating an inch or so)’, which is what the other surgeon had said. Again, no problem.
Shortly before the surgery, I had an assignment with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. I had one day off in Aspen, and while wandering around I was drawn into this jewelry store. There was a pendant, which was not my style really, but I was drawn to it for some reason. I asked the price, it was affordable, so I treated myself.
I came back to New York, and I had the surgery.
Dr. Melone needed to see me on June 30th to remove a ‘port’ for drainage, which succeeded in keeping my swelling down. The hard splint was opened, the gauze peeled away, and then I saw the scar (shows me).
The scar is the exact same size and shape as my pendant. Exactly!
Can you imagine! You should have seen my face! I think Dr. Melone thought I was upset about the scar.
When I place the pendant here on top of the scar, it’s like a cut-out. I really don’t know what to say beyond that, but I really love to tell the story; it gave me chills.
I’m making it into a good omen of some sort. And since you noticed and commented on the pendant when you first came in, I had to force the story on you (laughs).
You didn’t force anything on me. That was great. I’m surprised you didn’t kick me out the door two hours ago.
And with that, I told Rosalie that there might have been more questions that I forgot to ask, so I might have to come back and do this again.
She laughed. Again.
I didn’t really have any more questions. I just wanted to give myself the excuse to return some time. It’s not every day you meet someone you’ve known all your life for the first time. Or someone who so obviously, in many different aspects of her life, has been smiled upon by some beneficent being.
For more about Rosalie and her work, check out www.rosalieoconnor.com.