The exhibition of 100 photographs from the collection of the ROSPHOTO State Museum and Exhibition Center unravels the relationship between photography and ballet in Russia. Dedicated to the Year of Ballet, it covers the period from the second half of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century.

Photography’s engagement with ballet in Russia originated in the middle of the 19th century. By this time, classical ballet was fully formed as an independent genre of art, bringing together the harmony of music and dance. Photography, in turn, was just beginning to explore the possibilities of its language, defining the limits of the documentary and artistic. But, undoubtedly, both beautiful arts experienced the need for interaction. Photography was searching for picturesqueness, while ballet needed instant and accurate capturing of performance poses. The appearance in the 19th century of professional photographers specializing in theatrical photography marked the beginning of a continuous collaboration and formed the basis for the creation of the iconography of vivid, memorable images of Russian ballet.

The tradition of Russian ballet photography began in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, when the Italian actor Carl Bergamasco opened a photo studio, whose main visitors were actors of St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters. Cartes de visite, made in Bergamasco studio in the 1870s and 1880s, feature portraits of the ballerinas: Ekaterina Vazem, Maria Petipa, Lyubov Radina, whose talent determined the rise of classical Russian ballet. It was the works of Carl Bergamasco that captured the most characteristic dance movements and moments in their elegance and harmony, marking the beginning of the classical tradition in studio ballet photography.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the classical tradition continued with the work of M. Gershman and M. Paley in the photo studio of the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theater. It was them who created magnificent characteristic photographs of prominent Russian dancers. Limited by studio conditions, the photographers sought for the almost impossible — to convey not only the movements, but also the feelings and emotions of the actors on the stage. The brilliantly executed studies feature the dancers of the Kirov ballet: N. A. Petrov, A. A. Makarov, T. M. Vecheslova, N. M. Dudinskaya, K. M. Sergeeva, N. V. Timofeyev.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, classical ballet served as the basis for the development of Modern dance. The radically changed look of the dancers and the introduction of new elements draw the attention of photographers. The exhibition presents rare photos of dancers Isadora Duncan and Maria Ponna, dancer Alexander Kaverznev, ballet dancer Maria Semenova. Pictures taken by different authors are united by the desire to convey the movements of dancers in the most expressive way possible.

The exhibition’s gem is the original series of photographs by Vladimir Zenzinov dedicated to the Ballet Theater of Leonid Yakobson “Choreographic miniatures” (1973–1975) and Raphael Mangutov’s series about the Ballet Theater of Boris Eifman (1980s). Both authors are deeply immersed in the dance environment, and are prone to interpretation. In the Yakobson Theater, Vladimir Zenzinov combines the work of a ballet dancer with the position of photographer. He captures precise details of the daily life of the theater, paying special attention to the characteristic features of actors. A different approach is demonstrated by Rafael Mangutov. The desire to dive deep into the world of ballet makes the author attend rehearsals and performances. His works demonstrate both professional skills and the pursuit of an artist who is aware of the gap between what is actually happening and what his photographs will show.

The exhibition also features the series “Ballet Stars” by Alexander Kitayev, devoted to the prima donnas of the Mariinsky Theater, and selected works by Valentin Samarin.

Cover photo: Alexander Kitayev. Principal dancer Yulia Makhalina. Series Ballet Stars, 1997
Event photo: Vladimir Zenzinov. Elena Valnina, principal dancer of Leonid Yakobson’s Choreographic Miniatures Ballet Theater, as the Swan in the choreographic miniature of the same name. Leningrad, 19731975