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PREVIEW: What Lies Beneath – Hospital Club Gallery, Royal Opera House, London

Photographer: Rick Guest
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

 

Covent Garden is the primary home of ballet in London with The Royal Opera House on the western side and the Coliseum to the east. Appropriate then that this dancers’ province should be the location of Rick Guest’s new photography exhibition of ballerinas that opens at the Hospital Club Gallery on 22 January. When you think of ballet it is usually of delicacy, grace and softness, of women in tutus or male dancers largely limited to lifting and carrying. Guest strips away all of this with around 30 large scale portraits of the people, determination and astonishing physical strength that is the true picture of ballet as a profession.

RG_Steven_McRae_01-489x651What is most striking about this collection is the sheer physicality of the dancers included, and with equal space given to men and women the athleticism required to join and succeed in a major company is abundantly clear. Wandering from image to image whether in repose or in motion, the powerful muscles of the legs, arms and back, in particular, are so prominent they dominate the picture. Image No.21 of Edward Watson, one of many shots of this Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet, shows him entirely off the ground in mid-jump, feet delicately pointed but calf muscles bulging with effortwhile his upper body is twisted slightly to showcase the back and ribs. It’s a fabulous image, echoed in the equally affecting picture of Marienala Nunez (No.9) who has her back to the audience while recreating a bird-like movement from Swan Lake while the muscles in her shoulder blades are flexed and sculpted.
The exhibition also makes interesting statements about the role of gender in ballet which over a series of pictures places the masculine stance of the male dancer against the slender gentleness of the female. Eric Underwood, Nicholas Bodych and Sergei Polunin stare aggressively at the camera often in poses that maximise their physical impression – long gone is the notion of ballet being too girly for men – while Alison McWhinney, Yuhui Choe and Tamara Rojo look coyly at the viewer under lowered lids. This is even clearer in the two pictures of dancers together as in No.27 where Marianela Nunez stands behind Thiago SoareRG_NehemiahKish_YuhuiChoe_01-489x651s with her arm draped over his shoulder looking supplicating, while he stands proudly in the centre, clasping her hand, gazing confidently to the sky; undoubtedly he is in control. Similar, No.2 shows the strong back of Nehemiah Kish supporting Yuhui Choe who is wrapped around him – it’s intimate and emotional but shows the male strength against the female softness – a major theme of this collection.

Perhaps most affecting is how vulnerable some of the dancers look. Unable to hide behind character or costume, these images show them as they are in practice mode and often wearing tatty and well-worn clothing of their own. Arguably these familiar items act as a security, a comfort when the usual trappings of ballet are removed leaving just the artist, who like actors, have dedicated their professional lives to being someone else. That sense of exposure is brilliantly portrayed in the portrait of Olivia Cowley (No.22) who looks over her shoulder with a frightened and self-conscious gaze. Similarly Edward Watson’s previous athletic dominance is tempered with an image of his knees drawn under his chin, arms wrapped around them, looking with uncertainty at the viewer, cautious of us seeing him this way (No.12). These contrasts of the physical and emotional give this exhibition a depth with offers an unexpected insight into the fragility of the artistic personality.

What Lies Beneath is a beautiful collection of images that has so much to say about the bodily and emotional sacrifices necessary to become a leading artist. Guest and collaborator Olivia Pomp’s stripped back approach to the image utilises a washed out look and simple blue-green background to ensure the subject remains the focus. And crucially their work doesn’t allow the dancers to escape the intimacy of the camera’s gaze as it records every hair, tone and variation in skin texture to get the viewer closer to the individual. But humanising the dancers so starkly actually gives the images their energy showing that physical power, resilience and considerable reserves of endurance are as much a part of ballet as pliés and tutus.

Runs Until 31 January 2016 | Images: Rick Guest

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