Becoming a Photographer:
Behind the Scenes with Andrej Uspenski
Words with the man and thoughts on the Behind the Scenes at The Royal Ballet book from Graham Watts. Details of his next book too – on Natalia Osipova…
Behind the Scenes at The Royal Ballet
Published by Oberon Books: oberonbooks.com
Publication Date 1 April 2013
Hardback, 144 pages
Picture feature and complete press release
Natalia Osipova: Becoming a Swan
Publishers page: www.oberonbooks.com
General Publication Date: 30 September 2013
PaperBack, 88 pages
One sure thing about Andrej Uspenski is that there will always be a camera dangling from his neck and if there isn’t then you can be certain that he’s either asleep or on stage performing with The Royal Ballet. Even then I expect the camera is only a few feet away in the wings! So, it comes as quite a surprise when I meet him at The Hospital Club, with cool background jazz soothing away the cares of the day, that said camera is nowhere to be seen. “Don’t worry,” he says, grinning like the Cheshire Cat he has recently been sharing a stage with in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, “it’s safely tucked away in here”, indicating the ubiquitous large holdall apparently carried by every dancer.
Uspenski has been dancing with The Royal Ballet for a decade, spending three years before that with The Royal Danish Ballet. However, it is not dancing but his burgeoning second career as a photographer that has brought me to discuss his most recent project and to learn some exciting news about the next.
His first book of photographs, simply entitled ‘Dancers’ was published by Oberon Books, four months ago, and has been acclaimed for the simple truths of portraying the real lives of dancers behind the scenes of their glamorous profession. Uspenski tells me that the book is a compilation of photos that he has taken over the past five years, a fact evidenced by juxtaposing memories of dancers who have long since left the company (Miyako Yoshida, David Makhateli and Alexandra Ansanelli) with images of those who have not long joined (not least in several photos of Natalia Osipova preparing for her Swan Lake debut at the beginning of the 2012/13 season).
In fact, Uspenski has so many glorious images of Osipova developing the dual role of Odette and Odile that hot off the press is the news that his follow-up book, also to be published by Oberon, is a collection devoted to the world’s most sought-after ballerina in the world’s most popular ballet, to be entitled ‘Natalia Osipova: Becoming a Swan’. He shows me his ideas for the layout, page-by-page, and I have no doubt that it promises to be a stunning new photo-journal concept. The new book will be available exclusively from the Royal Opera House Shop from 30th July 2013 (elsewhere from 30th September).
Getting back to the current publication, I asked him about the process of selecting the photographs for ‘Dancers’. “Oberon gave me freedom to select the pictures and to choose my own theme and I’m really thankful for that”, he tells me. There are over 200 pictures in the book and it was a difficult journey for Uspenski to choose them. “First of all there was a limit on the number of pages. I didn’t want a massive book – even if it were economically possible – because if you are flicking through photos of the same subject for 20 minutes, inevitably you will get bored and I wanted to avoid that. I feel that ‘Dancers’ is just the right length”. “It was hell to select the pictures”, he continues. “You have 20/30 pictures in the same format and you have to pick the best. You start off with the obvious. Are the eyes shut? And then you have to be really picky – is the hand like that, or like that? You are looking for tiny details that make one photo better than another”.
I ask him if being a professional ballet dancer helps to make those choices. “We find fault too easily”, he says. “I hate all photos of myself for exactly that reason. I never look perfect. Every dancer is the same. Some people are open and like posing, some people are shy and don’t like the camera. You need to use different tactics to bring out the best in both cases”.
The photo subject also mattered in the process of picture selection. “I had to take some great photos out”, he confides, “because there would have been too many pictures of some dancers given that I naturally gravitated to taking pictures of the people that I was with the most”. It is easy to see that Uspenski’s close circle bridged various groups in the company and although certain dancers are prevalent (Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg; Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares; Melissa Hamilton, for example) it is hard to identify dancers not included (only Lauren Cuthbertson sprang to mind as a notable omission). One important aspect of the book is its egalitarianism since dancers from the corps de ballet feature prominently. But it is the absentees that Uspenski regrets the most, saying, “It was impossible to get every dancer at The Royal Ballet into the book and I am sorry for that”.
The concept of ‘Dancers’ works a little like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with the photographs behind the scenes, which occupy the first two-thirds of the unnumbered 144 pages, in black & white, but everything switching to colour for all the dress rehearsal shots taken on the main stage. “I decided to put these into colour so that it would show the costumes in their full glory”, he explains. “But, actually, I really wanted the book to concentrate more on the life of a dancer backstage, capturing that extended artistic side in terms of changing rooms, applying make-up and just having fun with our friends. I was very keen to make a book that was more than staged dance publicity shots. I wanted to capture dancers as they really are, as I have seen them every day since I began to dance myself”.
This side is what makes the book so special. As a long-term colleague who is first-and-foremost a dancer himself, we can see how completely at ease the dancers and coaches are with Uspenski’s lens amongst them. Some of my favourite moments are the cameos in the background – like a MacMillan choreography – where, for example, Ed Watson and Bennet Gartside are caught in an earnest conversation just on the periphery of a shot; the coach Sasha Agadzhanov joining in at barre; or how, no matter where he is framed in a shot, Kobborg’s eyes are so often spotted on the camera! It is these moments that resonate since they are unlikely to be seen in the photographs of any non-dancer. We see Cojocaru sitting on a speaker with three large cables apparently connecting her to the mains, as if being charged-up for her next performance, or turning to wave a fond farewell to the cameraman. And then there is Osipova, deep in concentration as she prepares to go on stage, her fear and anticipation suddenly captured from above; or Tamara Rojo clutching a tutu, caught in the middle of a trademark smile. And we see Nuñez smiling all the time! There is a gorgeous photo of Claire Calvert, looking, as Uspenski says, like “she is in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’”. Another intimate photograph shows Carlos Acosta and Osipova, together with their coach, Agadzhanov, dressed for their landmark performances as Siegfried and Odette, curiously peering out into the auditorium through a crack in the curtain.
Every page that is turned brings an image that you want to hover over and the lack of text – other than a simple statement of the dancers’ names and, where appropriate, the production – adds to the punchy impact. “I was thinking about writing little notes for each picture but then I realised that the pictures do speak for themselves. I hope they tell their own story”, says Uspenski.
It was The Royal Ballet’s Associate Director, Jeanetta Laurence who helped Uspenski to get his photographs published. She made the introduction to Oberon, publishers of The Royal Ballet Yearbooks amongst other books on ballet. “Oberon were the natural choice”, says Uspenski, and after delaying a few months to avoid clashing with Darcey Bussell’s ‘A Life in Pictures’, released last autumn, ‘Dancers’ finally hit the bookshelves in April.
Uspenski loves the idea of his book becoming a collectible treasure. “I have an image of balletomanes at the stage door trying to get every single signature of the dancers in the photographs”, he says, and at the time that we speak he is anxious to try to get copies of the book taken to Japan in time for The Royal Ballet’s tour. “But, it’s a complicated thing and I don’t really understand the business side”, he confesses.
Uspenski’s father was a keen amateur photographer and Andrej has been fascinated by photography since childhood. “When I look back at the pictures my father took they are just amazing”, he tells me. “He captured such atmosphere even though he was never a professional”. But, Uspenski’s father didn’t enjoy the transformation from film and never really embraced digital photography. “We moved to Germany from Russia and he kind of stopped when everything went onto computers”, he tells me. “He never really liked it and my own interest waned with his”.
However, around six years ago, Uspenski had a stress fracture on his shin and needed six months to recuperate with no dancing. “I was not allowed on the stage”, he remembers. “I was very depressed and needed something other than praying that my leg would get better. I didn’t want to just sit at home and so I went shopping and brought a camera: a Canon 5D. I have always stuck to Canon”. His words of advice to any budding photographer are: “The first choice of camera is vital. You need to stick to it because if you change you have to start all over again, buying all new equipment because nothing is compatible”.
I ask him about diversifying his skills. “I’ve done three weddings already, all for company members”, he proudly admits. “In ballet photography you are working in low light conditions with fast movement and no flash allowed and suddenly in a wedding it is entirely different with posed photographs and no movement! I am such a ballet photographer that I am not so familiar with how the flash works. But I have had to learn really quickly. If you take ballet photos, it is a case of you win some, and you lose some but for a wedding you have to be in charge and you just have to get every photo exactly right! You have to tell people where to go, what to do. It is really challenging. But, I’ve done three now so I’m beginning to know exactly what to do”.
Another of Uspenski’s recent commissions was in London Fashion Week. He tells me how this came about and how illuminating it was to work with professional models. “One of the members of the costume department is also a fashion designer and I did her catwalk show. It isn’t so far removed from ballet in terms of movement but I was fascinated by the way that the models know exactly how to pose for the camera. I was just blown away by this because I had never experienced this kind of feeling for the camera. They know exactly how to look, where the camera is, which profile to give. You don’t have to ask them, they just do it”.
I asked Andrej if the photography is now taking over from his career as a dancer and his reply was swift and adamant. “No, it is something extra. If anyone had told me when I joined the company that I would be producing a photo-book for The Royal Ballet then I would have laughed! I wouldn’t have believed it. But, then again, If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I was going to be a member of The Royal Ballet then I wouldn’t have believed that, either. Life is full of surprises and you have to take these opportunities as they come along. I just took the pictures for fun. I never thought about a book. Then the idea just came”.
With another book already imminent, Uspenski is not about to stop the flow: “I have lots of ideas to do more. I take a lot of pictures”. Not many of the world’s greatest photographers have two collections of their shots published within a few months and I have a strong feeling that Andrej Uspenski has many more books to come.