Mircea Albutiu, a masterful Romanian dance photographer, documents the inspiring convergence of classical ballet and contemporary dance with available light and a Leica Monochrom.
Q: We last interviewed you in January 2013. What have you been up to professionally since then?
A: I have worked most with the ballet dancers for a new series called “Inside.” It has been on exhibit since May 2014 on the first floor at Cluj National Opera as a permanent exhibition. On the website you can find all my series of dance images as a kind of blog.
Q: Can you provide us some background information on “New Energy”? Specifically, where and when was it taken?
A: “New Energy” was created at Cluj National Opera as well between March and June 2014. The famous choreographer Gigi Caciuleanu produced, along with the dancers, a new show called “Amor Amores” during that time frame.
Q: What kind of access were you given to the dancers and the show?
A: Essentially I had full access to the dancers and the choreographer. You know that I started to work with them in 2012, so the relationship has developed very well and we became good friends.
Q: Where does the title “New Energy” come from?
A: The dancers from Cluj National Opera are usually classic ballet dancers. Gigi Caciuleanu came to Cluj and brought in a completely new energy by introducing contemporary dance. The dancers had to abandon the strict ways of classic ballet and “melt into” the new show.
Q: What was your photographic approach to “New Energy”?
A: I was curious about Caciuleanu’s style of work and the way he was explaining what he wanted to express. I feel that he is a free soul. He let the dancers express in their own way, although he paid attention to every detail. I have captured images during the studies and rehearsals. It was nothing special from the photographic point of view so I adopted more or less a documentary approach.
Q: Did you face any challenges for this project? If so, what were they?
A: The main challenge was to capture a series of images that is not merely documentary, but one that catches the essence of the new energy present in the ensemble and on the stage.
Q: What camera and lens did you use to shoot these images?
A: I used the Leica Monochrom with the Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 lens.
Q: What made this equipment particularly suitable for this project?
A: I decided already in 2013 to start taking pictures inside the Opera with the Monochrom because of the low ambient light levels, discreet shutter, and for the nice tonal gradation it delivers. Since I bought the Monochrom, I’ve used it only with the 35 mm lens, and I enjoy it very much.
Q: What is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium for your kind of work, what ISO settings did you typically use in creating these images, and why do you use the 35 mm focal length exclusively?
A: I decided to take the Monochrom once I learned that it can deliver good pictures even at high ISO settings. Since I use no flash at all, it seemed the perfect solution for my work inside the Opera and also for other series where color is not really needed (e.g. Street Photography, Jazz, People, and The Terminal). I mainly use ISO 5000 when photographing inside, trying to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible depending on the circumstances. The 35 mm fits very well, giving me the possibility to get close to the subject. Also I don’t want to lose my focus and concentration by changing lenses during the shoot.
Q: You mentioned that the renowned choreographer Gigi Caciuleanu was working with classically trained ballet dancers but he “brought in a completely new energy with contemporary dance” in creating the “Amor Amores” show and encouraged them to “abandon the strict way of classic ballet and melt into the new show.” Do you think he was successful, and that your images capture both the formal and freewheeling aspects of this unique performance?
A: Gigi Caciuleanu influenced the ballet dancers a lot in a very positive way, and I am sure that some of the dancers would perform more contemporary dance if they had the chance. The opening show was a full house and the critical reviews were very positive.
Q: What does it mean to go beyond just documenting something and catching the essence of the new energy? And is this something you can plan and develop a strategy for achieving or do you just have to go with the flow and get into the feeling yourself?
A: I believe that the more time you spend with the subject, the closer you get to it, and the better your chances are to achieve good results. Getting into the feeling is not enough from my point of view. You have to use the creativity and your knowledge, use all the opportunities for catching the pictures you believe are worthy.
Q: When shooting with a 35 mm lens you have to get pretty close to the subject, which has the advantage of conveying an authentic feeling of intimacy. But it also means you have to operate pretty much in the dancers’ space. You mentioned having a friendly working relationship with the dancers, but did this close proximity ever pose any logistical problems for you or the dancers? And what did they think of these images?
A: I believe that I did not disturb the practice sessions and the rehearsals with my presence, and so far nobody has voiced any objections. The dancers saw only a few images that I posted on my blog. The idea was to show them in the exhibitions.
Q: Here is an almost acrobatic picture of a male dancer holding an attractive female dancer upside-down with her hair touching the floor, yet her expression seems so natural and you don’t even think about the fact that the top half of the male dancer is not visible at all. Do you agree, and what do you think this fascinating picture says to the viewer or means to you personally?
A: This kind of image comports very well, in my opinion, with the series title, “New Energy.” The fact that the dancer looks natural even though she is upside-down, conveys the idea of its being simple, easy, and natural.
Q: The most striking thing about this image is the variation in the size of the different female dancers depending on their distance from the camera. The effect is very startling and engaging, and part of the charm of this image is the almost beatific expression on the face of the central figure, and the fact that the people on the right and left are partially cut off, giving the image a sense of random naturalness that contrasts with its formal aspects. Why did you compose the picture in this way and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: My position in this picture was about 1m in front of the dancing group. I recognized the power of this image before pressing the shutter, and I took the position being fully aware of the choreography and waited for that moment.
Q: Here we have two dancers in a very athletic and contemporary pose evidently being directed by the choreographer whose outstretched hand seems to be “molding” the action and whose head and eyeglasses are barely visible in the upper right-hand corner of the frame. Judging by the female dancer’s hair, this must have been shot at a fast shutter speed. Can you tell us what’s actually going on here and provide the tech data for this image?
A: This image was taken also during the practice sessions at 1/500 sec at f/2.4 and ISO 2500. The dancers where struggling to reveal as best as they could the choreographic moment.
Q: Perhaps the most “classical ballet” looking picture in the entire portfolio is this one, due to the positions of the dancers and the formal aspects of the setting. Even this one has a somewhat contemporary feel because of the flowers that look like they’re flying through the air. Can you tell us something about this image and what it represents?
A: The opening was getting closer and we needed a poster image. At first we tried to create a suitable image inside the studio but then we decided to give more importance to the picture by including the background the opera hall. This picture was chosen for the show poster.
Q: This one is certainly a splendid example of capturing a decisive moment. How did you manage to anticipate the action with such precision, and do you think sheer luck is ever an element in capturing such a beautifully dynamic image? By the way, what shutter speed and ISO did you use to freeze the dancers in mid-air and mid-step?
A: It was a lucky day for me. I decided to sit in front of the stage in the hall and take some pictures from there, which I very seldom do. I took about 35 images and chose six of them for the series. The data for this one is ISO 5000, f/1.7 and 1/350 sec.
Q: Unlike all of the other pictures in this portfolio, this one does not have any people in it at all, just the shimmering leafy background scenery with shadows of the leaves cast on the floor, yet it somehow embodies the dynamism of the entire production. What do you think it conveys to the viewer and why did you include it in this portfolio?
A: The shows are all preceded by the tension of the dancers, and the whole atmosphere is charged with emotion and expectation. I believe that this image conveys to the viewer some of these feelings that take place behind the curtain.
Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio and did this choreographer feel it captured the concepts he was trying to convey?
A: For me this series is different. Starting it without any expectations I am very happy with the results. Gigi Caciuleanu is also very happy with what he achieved with “New Energy”. We discussed making a show during the exhibition opening in Bucharest, and Caciuleanu has thankfully accepted the proposal.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres besides, for lack of a better term, dance documentary?
A: I would like to continue to learn and practice photography despite the fact that I am dedicated to documenting and exploring specific types of subjects. I believe there is always more to discover in photographing dance.
Q: What are your plans for “New Energy”? Such as exhibitions, a book, etc?
A: My wish is to exhibit these images in different cities in Europe in 2015 and 2016. I am also thinking of publishing a book with images of ballet dancers.
Thank you for your time, Mircea!
-Leica Internet Team
You can see more of Mircea’s work on his website.