The secret life of dancers

08 May 2009 | By Kate Scott

Former Principal Artist Lynette Wills has been photographed more times than she could ever count during her long career with The Australian Ballet, but in 2005 she moved behind the lens to spend 18 months documenting her fellow dancers. The result, after hundreds of rehearsals and performances, is Step Inside The Australian Ballet, a book that captures a very different side of dance to the one you see onstage.

What was the first camera you ever owned, Lynette?
Probably a $30 point-and-shoot film camera that really did nothing else but point and shoot!

When did you start bringing a camera into rehearsals?
Not until after I had proposed the book idea to David [McAllister, Artistic Director]. Mainly because you need permission – you need a lot of permissions – from the company, from the theatres, from the people doing the ballets. I needed to float the idea with him first, and the dancers. I needed to make sure they were going to be comfortable with me carrying a camera and taking photos of them non-stop. And then at the end of that first season I realised that I needed better lenses and equipment, so I quickly upgraded.

When was that?
The end of 2005. It was before I was pregnant with Thomas [Lynette’s first child], so I was full-time dancing when I started taking the photos. I had no photography qualifications so I bought several photography books, and over the Christmas holidays I did a photography course – a very basic one – to understand as much as I could. I’ve only just learnt the beginnings of photography and I’m desperate to learn more.

Dancers spend all day in front of mirrors in the rehearsal studio. Does being quite self-aware make them good subjects?
Yes, it makes them good subjects. I also think they’re physically interesting. It was really all about how good the content of the photography was, never about how good a photographer I was. I just think there are so many incredibly special moments that go on every day within The Australian Ballet that no one gets to see, and I wanted to capture a few of them to share – to give a more realistic idea of a dancer’s life. And they very quickly learned not to be self-conscious of me in the room. I was in there too often, and taking too many photos, for them to pose for me. It took a couple of weeks for it to feel okay with everyone – and myself. It was strange for me to be involved in other peoples’ private rehearsals, when it’s one-on-one. That’s a very private time for a dancer. I was very aware of that. If the rehearsal seemed like it needed space, I’d often leave – but then again they’d be the rehearsals where you’d capture the most special moments.

I guess it can take another dancer to really understand what’s happening in a moment.
My advantage was that I know ballet so well that I knew when the moments were coming, and the dancers knew me so well that they were relaxed enough to just get on with their job. No one was dressing up and putting make up on – they just went on with their day.

Can you tell me a little about the production process – selecting the photos, obtaining permissions.
When I was pregnant with Sophie [Wills’ youngest child], I worked on getting the rights to use the photos from the choreographers, the designers, the theatres, and all the dancers. And then I had to narrow down the selection of thousands of photos to around 300. I took thousands, absolutely thousands. It was really hard to select just 300. Because I took them over two years and I was trying to include as many people as possible, and as many occasions as possible, and as many ballets as possible. I’m glad the final decision was up to someone else – I was too close to the project to be objective.

It would have given you a real insight into the less glamorous side of book publishing, as well as an insight into how the non-dancing side of The Australian Ballet operates.
Absolutely. I really enjoyed remaining involved in the book, rather than handing it over to just see the end. I understand the process more. I know how hard it is, what the timelines are, what the restrictions are.

There are quite a few challenges in capturing dance – your subjects are always moving, there’s low light in the studios …
The light in the studios is dreadful, and you can’t use a flash at any time. You can’t ask dancers to repeat anything – well, it was strong in my mind that I never wanted to do that. I always felt that if I missed it, I missed it – there wasn’t one set-up shot in the whole book. And, yes, they’re moving and you need to remain fairly still. I’d move around as much as I thought was polite to do. But there’s a limit. I wanted people to be unaware that I was even in the room. So that was probably when I quickly learnt that I needed a better lens, and a better camera. I realised I needed good equipment to take anything at all.

Where did the initial concept for the book come from?
I can’t really remember the moment where I went, “Gee, we should do a book!” But I must have seen something that reminded me of these posters from my childhood by Harvey Edwards. They were in every ballet school in the country. There was a set of six but the most popular one was a set of legs in a plie, wearing worn out leg-warmers – the dirtiest things you’ve ever seen with holes in them – and the ballet shoes had holes in them, too. You could see the dedication required, the hours required, that it’s not all pretty. It said all of this with one set of legs. And I thought, there’s so much of this going on. When you bring a friend back to rehearsals, they often find it more interesting than the performance because it’s the unknown, the unseen – it’s the secret life of a dancer.

That’s why I thought of doing a book, to capture the feelings that go on side of stage, in dressing rooms … And then I thought, who could do it? It’s was going to take hundreds of hours in the studio, and you just can’t pay a photographer to do that. And that’s why it ended up being me. I thought, “How hard can it be?!”

The career of a dancer can sometimes be short. It must be nice both for you and the dancers in the photographers to have a record of that time.
Yes. These people are my second family, my closest friends, my inspiring colleagues. It was an honour for me to spend more time with them. There are memories in there, even though I wasn’t in the book at all. Everyone says, “But you’re not in it!” and I have to tell them, “Of course I’m not in it! I’m the photographer!” I was involved in every one of those ballets. I remember exactly what was happening in the studio and the next rehearsal was probably mine, in the same feeling and atmosphere.

Do you like being photographed yourself?
Sometimes! It depends on what it’s for. If you’re working well with a photographer, and you’re working in the same headspace. I’d often flick back through the photos and show the dancers at the end of their shoot. And I’d delete any immediately that they didn’t like. Then when I went home and looked at the photos again, I’d delete any photos where the positions weren’t perfect. There’s nothing worse than someone going, “But your face is beautiful!” and you going, “But my feet are terrible!”

Do you have a favourite photo in the book?
One of my favourites is one from rehearsals with Bangarra Dance Theatre where a ballet dancer’s foot and a Bangarra dancer’s foot come together. It was one of my first and one of those photos that says a thousand words, but there’s no faces, no bodies. They’re not kicking their legs up high. It’s just two companies coming together, two cultures coming together; reaching out and sharing a moment. To me it says so much.

Images of The Australian Ballet by Lynette Wills.
Portrait photography of Lynette Wills by James Braund