This weekend the sun was shining and I had a few spare hours, so I wandered over to Munro House to grab a coffee and check out Justin Slee’s Avant exhibition at the Leeds Gallery. This stunning collection of photos portrays behind-the-scenes moments at Northern Ballet, a project spanning 5 years during which time Slee was given access to shows and rehearsals to observe the dancers and photograph them at work.
I first heard about the project through an article on The City Talking in which the writer compared the exhibition to the work of Edgar Degas, the Impressionist who dedicated more than half his paintings to studies of dancers. Although the medium is different, I was also struck by the similarities between Degas’ paintings and Slee’s photos; like Degas, Slee makes a study of light, often capturing dancers at the moment their bodies are hit by a shaft of light or making use of shadow to create contrasts of colour.
However what I found most moving about Slee’s collection was the amazing candour of the shots; the most memorable photos were not those taken during performances but the unguarded moments snapped during rehearsals. Slee captures the dancers in moments of pure focus, so lost in their work they appear to have forgotten his presence, and these are the shots that encapsulate the incredible discipline and commitment that goes into creating the Northern Ballet’s productions.
The exhibition also reveals the human side of the dancers, an accessible element that lies in stark contrast to the elegant, ethereal beings we see on stage. One photo shows a female dancer taking a break, her face creased with laughter as she sits bent forward with her elbows resting on her knees. My personal favourite depicts what appears to be a warm-up, in which Slee catches a dancer pulling a face at her colleague. These pictures are arrestingly intimate, and it is this intimacy that makes the collection so awe-inspiring.
I must admit I’ve never paid much attention to ballet; I was taken once by my Grandma as a child but as I’ve grown up my interests turned to literature and drama, and my theatre visits have always been to see plays. Maybe I’ll have to give it another try…