Not-So- Prima Ballerina: Harvey Edwards’ Ballet Study
May 11, 2011
Imagine yourself as a nine-year-old girl about to walk into her first dance class. Intimidated and alone, you wait in the hallway of the studio with all of the other dancers in your class. Unsure of what to do with yourself in this time and space of transition, your gaze wanders to the ominous image of Edward Harvey’s Ballet Study that is hanging above your head: the plied, turned out, fifth positioned legs of a seasoned ballet dancer. Suddenly, you know you are in the right place. Like in this scene with Edwards’ photograph, the context in which a photograph is experienced informs its meaning as a text. However, the meaning of a photograph as a text in a particular context- by the photographer, because of the viewer- also comes from what the image itself as a text reveals about reality. Photography is a tool for the spectatorship of reality. In some cases, photography makes us less familiar with reality by manipulating its representation and thus the way we perceive it. Other times, like in the case of Edwards’ image Ballet Study, photography allows us to become more familiar with aspects of reality we don’t normally experience by making them more accessible and relatable. Through presenting reality in either a more familiar or a more abstract way, photography offers us a different reality than the one we experience, which leads us to desire the photographed version of reality presented by photographers like Edwards. His photograph changes our perception of ballet as something that is merely performance and spectacle-based by revealing the truth about the study, discipline, and practice of ballet necessary for that performance. Upon having a changed perception, viewers of this image change the way they interact with and receive the rest of their ballet-related experiences. Because photography changes what we see of reality, how we see reality, what we desire and expect from reality, it changes how we interact with the world around us. Thus, changing our actions, photography changes reality.
A ballet dancer’s legs are the source of force for all balletic movements. The legs give the rest of the body power and momentum for movement, and ballet especially emphasizes the effective use of legs in technique. Because Edwards’ photograph is set in a dance studio, the legs symbolize study, discipline, and practice. Barthes confirms that the legs, as objects, are physical signs that act as symbols once they have been photographed. Szarkowski adds to this by claiming that the “The Thing Itself” of a photograph- the set of legs- is “a substitute for the subject [of dance discipline and practice] itself- a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact” (Szarkowski 14). Szarkowski’s notion of vantage point further informs the subject of this image because the presence of Edwards’ dancer in a studio gets behind the spectacle of performance and exposes what happens prior to a dancer being on stage. This image’s vantage point changes what we look at while we watch a dancer, forcing us to look just at her legs instead of her entire body. It is also said that while watching dance, dancers usually watch legs and feet of other dancers while non-dancers watch a performer’s face; by focusing on this dancer’s legs, the photographer is changing our perspective and our relationship to the dancer- thus our role and identity as a studier of dance.
Szarkowski’s vantage point gets taken a step further in its relation to Shore’s notion of focus. According to Shore, “focus… from a definite vantage point… creates a hierarchy in the depictive space by defining a single plane of focus… and helps to distill a photograph’s subject from its content” (Shore 47). In the case of Edward’s photograph, the content is a dancer’s legs while the subject is what these legs reveal: the effects of the work and effort needed for a professional ballet dancer to succeed in her field. The vantage point from which a photograph is taken allows viewers to focus on the object/the thing itself within the photograph. A key element in facilitating this relationship is the frame. In Edwards’ photograph, the frame causes the image to exclude the rest of the dancers body so it defines the content as just her legs. This establishes a specific relationship not only between the viewer and the content of a dancer’s legs in Edwards’ image but also between the viewer and the photograph itself as a physical medium. In the case of Edwards’ photograph, the frame establishes the content and meaning of the image by fragmenting the familiarity of a dancer’s body. This fragmentation distances the viewers from the reality of their perception of a ballet dancer’s body which changes their relationship, understanding, and exposure to ballet dance as a whole.
The dancer in Edwards’ photograph wears torn woven leg warmers with large holes that reveal tights underneath. The red and yellow of her garments are primary colors which implies a sense of simplicity and fundamentality that connects to the fundamentality of these particular garments to a ballerina’s existence; it is in tights and leg warmers that she practices and trains. Also, red and yellow as warm colors evoke a sense of heat that alludes to their functional value as garments that keep the body warm. This consistency in warmth of color between the object of the photograph and her context within the image creates a relationship of familiarity and belonging between them. The fact that this dancer even wears leg warmers suggests a sense of preparedness. The holes in the leg warmers also contribute to the sense of experience they evoke, for they suggest the leg warmers have been worn and used extensively before. In addition to having juxtaposed colors, the leg warmers and tights differ in material. The physical layers that she wears allude to the layers of her identity, the depth of her training, the necessity of both formality- represented by the tights- and functionality- represented by the leg warmers. It is the detailing of the wrinkled, frayed, and torn leg warmers and tights that alludes to this dancer’s identity as a professional ballerina- because of this detail we can assume this much about her identity without even having seen her face.
On her feet, Edwards’ dancer wears torn beigy-pink canvas ballet slippers with silver duct tape wrapped around the toe. It is these ballet slippers specifically that reveal the most about this dancer’s identity to viewers. They instantaneously establish this dancer’s identity as a ballet dancer as opposed to any other type of dancer. The fact that she is wearing shoes in the first place lends itself to the notion of self-preservation, just as the leg warmers do. The duct tape around the toe of the dancer’s foot has probably been put there to cover up a hole or to prevent the shoe from getting further torn, which again suggests experience and extensive use. The soft canvas of the slipper is juxtaposed with the synthetic material of the duct tape holding them together in a way that introduces the functionality of industrialization and mechanization into the romanticized world of the arts. Because this dancer relies on the duct tape to hold her shoe together, Edwards’ image suggests that the effectiveness and survival of the arts depends on the functionality, sustainability, replicatability, and commoditization offered by art’s mechanization. It is interesting to note that holes exist in both the leg warmers and the shoes, but the dancer only chose to actively close up the holes in her ballet slippers; this places a value on functionality over aesthetics. If she had been concerned about aesthetics, Edwards’ dancer might have chosen to cover the holes in her leg warmers as well instead of just the holes in her shoes that were preventing her from dancing. Because of the wear and tear exhibited by this dancer’s clothing and footwear, we can again assume she is photographed in a studio setting during a rehearsal or training process. By bringing us inside the studio and showing us the allegedly not aesthetically pleasing reality of dance, Edwards is giving us a different perspective than the one we are used to having when watching a perfectly polished and groomed ballerina perform “effortlessly” on stage.
It is these specific details of the leg warmers on her legs and the ballet slippers on her feet that reveal to viewers the reality of this dancer’s identity. First of all, the mere presence of color in Edwards’ photograph relates to Shore’s notion that color in the physical level of a photograph evokes a sense of transparency and realisticness to viewers. The fact that the dancer in Edwards’ photo is wearing color suggests that she is a dancer in a professional context where dancers have more freedom over their individuality of expression. Thus, it brings our attention to the individuality of the dancer and to her ability to express this individuality because of her professional standing. Edwards’ image also relates to Szarkowski’s notion of detail, for he claims that because “the photographer was tied to the facts of things…it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth by isolat[ing] the fragment, document[ing] it, and by doing so claim[ing] for it some special significance” (Szarkowski 3). This new perspective Edwards depicts as he focuses on details of a ballerina’s legs is valuable to viewers of his image because it is a perspective we don’t normally possess. It is because of these details about the leg warmers and the ballet slippers in the image that we know about- and arguably, care about- the dancer herself. As Szarkowski might suggest, the symbols laced throughout the dancer’s garments of clothing on her legs and feet can be unpacked to reveal not only her own story and narrative as a ballerina, but also those of Ballerinas as a segment of modern society. The details make this dancer’s story real by making it relatable and significant to viewers- even if her specific story as an individual dancer isn’t necessarily clear. Szarkowski would claim that by showing us the seemingly ordinary from a new perspective, Edwards changes our relationship to what we thought of as ordinary. In becoming new, different, revealing, and less ordinary thanks to a change in perspective, reality itself changes.
The dancer in Edwards’ photograph is standing in the ballet Fifth Position with 180° turnout, which is an extremely idealized and standardized position in the world of ballet. Ballet is distinguished from other dance forms by its turned out positions, which again connotes a sense of this woman’s identity as a ballet dancer. We can further assume that Edwards’ dancer is not only a ballet dancer but also an experienced one because of her technically informed execution of this position. Because it acts as a home base for other ballet movements, fifth position is a common movement and thus is familiar to both the dancers who execute this position as well as other viewers who had most likely seen this position on the bodies of ballet dancers in performance. This familiarity lends itself to a sense of significance- both formally to the viewer of this image and also functionally to the dancer in it. Barthes directly addresses this significance of pose within a photograph by claiming that “the photograph clearly only signifies because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which for ready-made elements of signification” (Barthes 201). That posture specifically draws upon historical signification relates heavily to this image of a ballet dancer’s legs because ballet is a historical performance art form that has existed for centuries. Not only has the style and movement of ballet developed a reputation, signification, and connotation as “bourgeois” and “high art” over the course of its millennia-long practice, but its historical presence has also allowed it to be captured visually by painters and eventually photographers as well. This historicity is embodied both by the turned out fifth position of the dancer in Edwards’ photograph, as well as his actual act of having photographed this position in the first place; by recognizing the connotative value of a ballet position and photographing it, Edwards himself contributed to its connotative legacy.
In addition to being in turned out fifth position, Edwards’ dancer is in Plié. Plié relates to Barthes’s notion of pose in a unique and photographically paradoxical way: it is a denotative pose that connotes movement. This is unclear to those who truly see a plié as a mere predecessor pose to larger movement instead of recognizing that the plie itself utilizes numerous yet often undetectable movement qualities. According to Szarkowski, an image describes a present/decisive moment in which “the flux of changing forms and patterns [are] sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order” (Szarkowski 100); the turned out plie fifth position of Edwards’ dancer epitomizes this concept. Shore addresses pose in terms of time in a variety of instances. On his physical level, Shore claims that staticness manifested in a photograph is a way of experiencing time. In the case of Edwards’ image, viewers experience the time, the moment, a dancer is in plié before she pushes off into her turn or jump. On the depictive level, Shore offers the notion that “a photograph is static, but the world flows in time… [and] as this flow is interrupted by the photograph, a new meaning, a photographic meaning, is delineated” (Shore 37). This meaning is rendered by a photograph’s ability to engage viewers with this specific moment in time; Edwards relates us to the dancer in his image by allowing us to share the time, the experience of her plié- even if it is through the vehicle of a photograph and at a physical distance.
The physical context of Edwards’ image Ballet Study is a poster, which situates it as a manifestation of Eco’s hyperreality. Unique to this image’s form as a poster is that its title, photographer’s name, and photographer’s signature are all contained within the edge of the poster itself. The actual photograph as it sits on the poster material is framed by a beige border, and on underneath the image on this border is written “Ballet Study by Harvey Edwards” in black ink, superimposed on Edwards’ signature in white ink. The presence of the image’s textual title in such close relation to the image itself contributes to the connotation of the photograph as precisely what the title suggests: a study of ballet. The word “ballet” that resides underneath this image confirms the various assumptions made by readers about the identity of the dancer as a ballet dancer. What is interesting, though, is that Edwards chooses to title this piece Ballet Study instead of Ballerina Study. He implies that this image isn’t necessarily about her, the dancer herself, but rather about the art form she studies. Thus, the title of this photo alludes not to the viewer and photographer studying a ballerina, but to a ballerina studying ballet. By studying her- by studying a ballet student- we study ballet. As Barthes would suggest, the specificity of this title relating to ballet and not the ballerina, and proximity of this title to the image of the ballerina, most definitely have an impact on the meaning of this photograph to viewers. However, while Barthes argues that “the text [of a caption] constitutes a parasitic message…[and are] parasitic on the image” (Barthes 204), I think that in the case of Edwards’ photograph the title’s presence on the bottom of the poster clarifies the meaning of the image so viewers can read it correctly- or at least correctly in terms of how the photographer intended it to be read. What is also interesting to note is that Edwards’ signature is on the edge of the poster, and not within the border of the photographed image. This suggests that he is validating the poster, medium, and material of this photograph- and thus its existence as a manifestation of hyperreality- instead of the image itself.
The context in which I first experienced this image was my childhood dance studio. This poster hung in the hallway of my neighborhood dance studio near the back entrance, right before it opened up into the main studio where I took classes in ballet, hip-hop, and jazz a few times a week during my elementary and middle school years. At that point in my life, I merely danced to have an extracurricular activity to fill my afternoons, and to get some sort of physical exercise (I was horrible at and uninterested in sports). The context and location of my initial experience with this poster has a profound impact on its meaning for me. The fact that it hung in the back of my studio in an area which was usually only occupied by dance students themselves suggests that it was photographed and intended to be seen primarily by dancers instead of the general public. Dancers might have more of an appreciation for the image because it relates to their own experiences and feelings toward their own dance study. The fact that this image was seen by students of all dance disciplines and not just ballerinas like the one that was photographed suggests that it was acting as a reminder to us that training in ballet is necessary for establishing strong technical fundamentals as a dancer and achieving success in the professional dance world. The location of this poster in the transition space of a hallway relates to the fact that a plié is a transition position for before and after other movements. This could also be taken to mean that either the role of dancer and the practice of dance in one’s life is only temporary (because of the exclusiveness of the industry, the difficulty this field places on one’s physical body, etc.) or that the struggle of perfecting one’s form through practice- a struggle that leaves one’s leg warmers and ballet slippers with tears and holes- is only temporary. Viewing Edwards’ image during extremely formative years of my life, directly before entering a studio space resembling the one in the photograph, has established it in my mind as an omniscient reminder of the art form I have chosen to engage with and the journey I have chosen to embark on since then- a journey that has taken me to major in Dance and Performance Studies at the university level.
In the case of Edwards’ photograph Ballet Study, the dance studio context where I viewed it gave it a sense of significance as an idealized representation of the ballerina and study of ballet I was pursuing in that context. My role as a dancer contributes to both my involvement as a subject within the context this image was seen and to the insights I have about the actual text of the photograph as, like Edwards labels it, a ballet study. Edwards’ image presents ballet as something that is raw, unpolished, rehearsed, trained for, perfected, dedicated to- studied- as opposed to the beautiful romanticized spectacle of ballet performance that dominates public perception of this art form. The omniscient presence of Edwards’ image in my dance studio transformed my understanding of ballet into something that I could relate to as a struggling young dancer. This was the image I grew to associate with ballet- a version of ballet that was more attainable and realistic than the version I had always seen presented in tu-tus and Pointe shoes on stage. In offering me an image of an alternative potential reality to the one I had known and been so intimidated by, Edwards’ image changed my relationship to dance and even propelled my dance education in the direction of ballet- for a short while at least. Edwards’ image is an example that by changing our perceptions, desires, and actions, photography changes our reality. I can definitely say that as a woman pursuing dance at the university level and hopefully at the professional level someday- a woman not unlike the one photographed by Edwards- it has surely changed mine.
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