Photographer captures ballet dancers’ strength and sacrifice, power and pain

Behind every tutu, pointe shoe and dazzling costume is a finely tuned body, perfectly formed after years in the ballet studio. Rarely does the audience get to experience the raw beauty of a ballet dancer.

Award winning photographer Rick Guest has captured the ballet body, revealed and exposed their strong, athletic physique in his new book ‘What Lies Beneath‘. He has photographed world famous dancers including Tamaro Rojo CBE, Marianela Núñez, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, Sergei Polunin, Eric Watson, Olivia Cowley and more.

His captivating and inspiring photos are also being exhibited at The Hospital Club in London. The Wonderful World of Dance asked Rick about his wonderful collection:

What inspired you to create ‘What Lies Beneath’? 

The inspiration came from the dancers themselves. It seemed to me to be unfair to them, that because part of their art is to conceal the vast effort it takes to make it, that effort often goes unseen and unacknowledged. They work as hard physically as any professional athlete and yet because they have to act on top of all this and communicate whichever the emotion the choreographer intends, this effort and more importantly the strength of will that it takes, goes unnoticed.

Sarah Lamb © Rick Guest

Sarah Lamb © Rick Guest

What is the message or meaning that you want to convey in this collection?

I think the message – such as there is one, as I believe any image must be interpreted by the viewer in terms of what it means to them – is that I hope to convey a greater understanding of the spirit and character of the dancers that underpins their performance and with it a more profound appreciation of their art.

Marianela Nunez © Rick Guest

Marianela Nunez © Rick Guest

What were you trying to capture in these photographs? 

Their strength and their sacrifice, their power and their pain, to reveal something that exists beneath the make-up and costume, the performance or the part.

Sergei Polunin © Rick Guest

Sergei Polunin © Rick Guest

How do you bring the best out of the dancers? 

All I can do is provide an atmosphere of trust where hopefully they can show me their vulnerabilities without fear. We all have a sense vanity, but it’s inside every performer to go beyond that, even to use it.

No ballet dancer is keen to show you the toll dancing has taken on their bodies over the years; in particular, no dancer really wants to show you their feet, but when the intentions of the work – as mentioned above – have been talked over, they can see that there is a more important message to convey than vanity.

Steven McRae © Rick Guest

Steven McRae © Rick Guest

The portraits see the dancers looking quite serious, was this intentional?

I wanted the dancers to reveal something of themselves to me, something about what it takes to turn up each day and do what they do at such a high level. Some dancers offered up their vulnerabilities to me, some their defiance and strength, others a sense of sacrifice. Only the viewer can judge.

Federico Bonelli © Rick Guest

Federico Bonelli © Rick Guest

The dancers pose in their studio clothes, what inspired you choose this approach? 

This was very deliberate. Taking them out of their normal environment into the studio, out of costume and make up, there was less for them to hide behind.

But the other thing that fascinates me, and it exists in no other athletic pursuit I know, is what they wear for practice. In an incredibly scheduled and choreographed world, they each must conform every day in practice; however their clothing allows a strange form of self expression.

Of course their clothing is functional, to keep muscles warm, but why just the one leg warmer, or the single strap of a leotard? I find it charming and beautiful. The other thing is this sense that items of clothing can be a good luck charms, that a leotard or raggedy old tutu from their youth can be talismanic, it’s fascinating.

Zenaida Yanowsky © Rick Guest

Zenaida Yanowsky © Rick Guest

Did you choose any particular part of the dancers’ body to focus on?

I focussed on whatever each dancer gave me. I didn’t want to over direct them, which is hard when most dancers I have photographed want to be told what to do because of all the years of being choreographed, but these portraits need to be a collaboration, all portraits work best when they represent what happens in the space between the photographer and subject.

Olivia Cowley © Rick Guest

Olivia Cowley © Rick Guest

Can you share any special moments you had with the dancers in the studio? 

There are too many to mention, but when there’s an emotional connection, it’s electric and everyone in the studio can feel it, you almost stop breathing.

Ed Watson © Rick Guest

Ed Watson © Rick Guest

How do you approach the studio session and direction with the dancers?  

I discuss the aims of what I think is important before the shoot, but as I said, it’s completely collaborative, so I try to be as open as I can to what’s in front of me. I guess I try to follow the emotion, and leave the aesthetics to my unconscious as much as possible.

Kish Nehemiah and Choe Yuhui © Rick Guest

Kish Nehemiah and Choe Yuhui © Rick Guest

How did you discover a love of dance?  

My wife took me to my first ballet over twenty years ago, but it was only when I was commissioned to shoot Ed Watson at The Royal Ballet that the spell was truly cast. It’s one thing to be in the stalls, quite another to have someone of his calibre dance for you and mere feet from you.

Svetlana Gileva © Rick Guest

Svetlana Gileva © Rick Guest

As an award winning photographer, what advice would you give to other aspiring dance photographers?  

Take pictures. I know that sounds trite, but you learn first and foremost by doing; not talking about it, not writing about, not thinking about it, but by doing it. No more excuses, off you go….

Louis McMiller © Rick Guest

Louis McMiller © Rick Guest

Rick Guest’s two incredible books ‘What Lies Beneath’ and ‘Language of the Soul’ can be purchased here.

You can see more of Rick Guest’s photos here.

by Savannah Saunders