Rick Guest reveals the beauty and brutality of life as a ballet dancer in a new photo series

‘What Lies Beneath’, a new series of portraits of ballet dancers by Rick Guest, opens at the Hospital Club Gallery in London next week.

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Working alongside stylist Olivia Pomp, his long-term collaborator, Rick Guest is slowly carving out a niche for himself as a master of capturing ballet dancers in their various guises. This body of work is the latest in a number of series he has created working with dancers, and while previous portraits have captured the drama and theatrics of their work in full flow (including the images of ENB artistic director and principal dancer Tamara Rojo which accompanied our interview with her in the July ’15 issue of CR), these new images present a more intimate and raw picture.

Guest was first drawn to working with the dancers after he was commissioned to photograph Edward Watson, a principal of The Royal Ballet. “It was during this shoot that the spell was cast,” he says. “It’s one thing to see dancers on stage from the stalls, but quite another to have someone amongst the best at what they do in the world right in front of you, dancing for you.

“My day job is to photograph athletes for clients like Nike and adidas, people like Lionel Messi, Jessica Ennis, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Farah etc, people completely at the top of their game,” he continues. “These dancers operate at the same level as any other world-class athlete, but they have another layer to add, that of performance. On top of everything else, they need to conceal all the effort it takes to deliver that performance and communicate the emotional intention of the choreographer.”

Top and above: Edward Watson, principal of The Royal Ballet
Top and above: Edward Watson, principal of the Royal Ballet
Hikaru Kobayashi, first soloist of The Royal Ballet
Hikaru Kobayashi, first soloist of The Royal Ballet
Tamara Rojo, artistic director and principal of the English National Ballet
Tamara Rojo, artistic director and principal at the English National Ballet

In ‘What Lies Beneath’, Guest wants to articulate some of the effort and struggle that the dancers go through to get ready for a performance. They are photographed in their rehearsal clothes, many of which are battered and torn and hold great symbolism for them. “This body of work came about as I got to know more dancers personally,” says Guest, “and came to appreciate what they go through to deliver these effortless performances; the struggle and pain as they push their bodies to the edge, and the spirit and determination it takes to do this.

“I wanted to get to the dancers themselves, to reveal something about them as people, and so to strip away the veneer of costume, make up and character and to take them away from the stage and into the studio made sense.” he continues. “I was also fascinated by the clothes they wear for their daily practice, as they seem to perform several functions. Obviously, like any athlete, they need clothes that perform and keep their muscles warm. However, in a life so regimented, where they have to repeat exercises endlessly, whatever their rank in the ballet, these clothes allow for self-expression. The wearing of a single legwarmer, or the one strap of a leotard over the shoulder, reflects a dancer’s individuality. Dancers, like most athletes, are superstitious, and certain articles of clothing become talismanic, where an old leotard or a distressed tutu is seen as a good luck charm and will be worn until it disintegrates.”

Olivia Cowley, soloist of The Royal Ballet
Olivia Cowley, soloist of The Royal Ballet
Steven McRae, principal of The Royal Ballet
Steven McRae, principal of The Royal Ballet
Eric Underwood, soloist of The Royal Ballet
Eric Underwood, soloist of The Royal Ballet

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge that Guest had in creating this series was capturing the essence of each performer within the brief moments that it was exposed. “The biggest challenge is, as with all portraits, to do justice to your sitter and to the emotion of the piece,” he says. “The aims of the shoot are always discussed before we start, and different dancers will give you different things. Some offer up their vulnerabilities, their feeling of sacrifice or pain, others their defiance and determination, and you have to be open enough to capture those fleeting emotions as they’re revealed.”

As to whether he will continue collaborating with ballet dancers, Guest is emphatic. “Without a doubt,” he says. “The emotional dimension of what they do, on top of their breathtaking physicality, is incredibly special to witness, let alone photograph. I’d love for people who wouldn’t normally go to the ballet to discover this amazing world, as I have.”

Zenaida Yanowsky, principal of The Royal Ballet
Zenaida Yanowsky, principal of The Royal Ballet
Nehemiah Kish, principal of The Royal Ballet, and Yuhui Choe, first soloist of The Royal Ballet
Nehemiah Kish, principal of The Royal Ballet, and Yuhui Choe, first soloist of The Royal Ballet
Sergei Polunin, principal at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre
Sergei Polunin, principal at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic music theatre

‘What Lies Beneath’ will be on show at the Hospital Club Gallery in London from January 22-31. thehospitalclub.com