THE TRADITIONAL image of a ballet dancer is measured, choreographed and beautifully presented.
But for a new exhibition opening in Leeds this week, the dedication, professionalism and raw emotion of the dancers of one of the country’s leading ballet companies is laid bare.
Over five years, photographer Justin Slee had unprecedented privileged access to the dance studios of Northern Ballet, and the collection of images on display at The Gallery at Munro House in Leeds offers a fresh perspective on their work.
“I wanted to capture moments rather than positions and try to reflect the incredibly hard work that goes into creating beautiful performances,” he said. “For me it was less about what you can see from the auditorium, and more about the human aspect of the work, and the more quirky elements.”
Leeds-based Slee has spent 25 years working as an editorial, commercial and portrait photographer, but Avant is his first full solo exhibition.
The link with Northern Ballet came almost by chance. He had just picked up his camera again after taking a break from photography to work as a tour manager for a rock band, and won a job photographing the company at Christmas for a magazine.
“They were talking about moving their home, and I thought it would be nice to cover their journey,” he said. “I wrote to them, asking if it was something they would be up for, and it’s something I’ve nipped in and out of since.”
Covering a dance company was quite the departure for Slee, who was more used to photographing footballers, television stars and celebrities and admits to knowing nothing about ballet before starting the project.
“For me, I wanted to witness a new art and not be influenced by stereotypes about how it should be presented,” he said. “I’ve shied away from performance pictures because there are so many out there, it was more about the experiences and moments.
“I used to work with Leeds United and was up at Thorp Arch (the training ground) every week, but I never built a relationship with the players. But the dance world is different, they are incredibly nice people. They really made me feel at ease.”
The exhibition includes 60 images, but Slee, 46, of Rothwell, could have easily selected double the number.
“For a long time, most of these pictures have just been on my computer. To see them printed out, and then framed, has been a bit of a shock, he said. “Northern Ballet is a wonderful artistic company and the work they produce is a truly inspiring subject matter to record as a photographer. Having regular access to witness the Company’s daily work has been a fantastic opportunity and a huge visual inspiration to me.”
David Nixon, Northern Ballet’s artistic director said: “I’m delighted Justin is bringing together a collection of his work to share with the public. I was fascinated to look through the vast amount of images Justin has taken of the Company over recent years, they really capture some very special behind the scenes moments.”
Avant runs at The Gallery, Munro House, Duke Street, Leeds, until April 11. For more information visit www.leedsgallery.com
Entry to the exhibition is free.
SKIN bruised and marked by strapping, premier dancer Martha Leebolt’s bare feet show the strains of years of dancing.
The photograph, which came about by chance, is Justin Slee’s favourite in the exhibition.
“I’d had the idea of doing an on pointe picture, and after we’d finished, Martha, the dancer, took off her shoes,” he said. “You can see the strapping marks, the physique of her feet and bruises. It may not be everyone’s favourite, but it stands out to me.
“Another, of a male dancer dressed up in a wig and tunic stood against a wall, looks like it is from a fashion magazine.”
View the images on Mr Slee’s website www.avantprints.co.uk