Kike Calvo: Exploring The Fine Art of Ballet Photography

An award-winning photographer, bilingual journalist and author, Kike (pronounced key-key) Calvo was born in Zaragoza, Spain. He studied economics in Spain, but it was his experience in earning a B.S. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Idaho that ultimately shaped his passion for photography. During his illustrious career as a photographer over the past two decades, Calvo has traveled to 75 countries covering stories for National Geographic, and has also produced a highly regarded portfolio of editorial and commercial work for AP Images, The Associated Press, and countless advertising clients. Described by those who know him personally as “one of those rare people who is pure energy,” he recently transformed what had been a fairly routine advertising assignment promoting the National Ballet of Panama to younger audiences, into a transcendent fine art portfolio that merges the disciplines of photography and dance in profound ways to reveal their strong inner relationship. Here, in his well-chosen words, is the fascinating story of that ongoing, ever-evolving project.

Q. What were your goals in creating this series, and have they evolved from when you first started shooting ballet?

A. I feel that all projects evolve, and this one is no different. It began commercially and it turned into a personal passion. The ability to capture in a photograph the beauty, strength, passion and balance triggers my photographic imagination. The combination of the dancers’ skills with my own absolutely fascinates me.  My intention is to capture beauty in a simple manner, while creating timeless images that showcase Latin America and its culture.

Q. Where were these ballet photos taken?

A. They’ve been taken all around Latin America in places such as Colombia, Cuba and Panama. The locations are always chosen to represent the country I am in, whether by using a landmark or capturing a cultural feeling, so that anyone who knows the culture will relate to the image.

Q. How did you come to shoot ballet, and what draws you to shoot this particular subject?

A. It all started with an advertising campaign for the National Ballet of Panama. I got a phone call asking if I was interested in shooting a project for them. Their main goal was to create interest for ballet among younger generations and to those who are not familiar with it, which included me at the time. Their aim was to bring the ballet to the streets of Panama. Initially the approach was that the images were to be taken inside a theater. But as soon as I got into the project, I sought full creative freedom to really capture the essence of ballet and how I felt about it.

While doing this commercial photo assignment, I soon recognized that many elements of ballet had profound connections to my work. I felt that ballet dancers, like photographers, work very hard, with strong discipline and for long hours. Many times ballet viewers and audiences don’t really see all the hard work behind a performance, just as they don’t see all the hard work that goes into making powerful photographs. Both ballerinas and photographers make things look easy, but our respective audiences sometimes miss that there are thousands of repetitions on each technique needed to develop such perfection. Normally things that look beautiful and simple are the result of lots of very hard work.

Q. How do you think ballet photography fits into or complements the other genres of photography you shoot, such as nature, photojournalism, etc?

A. I believe that we, as photographers, develop our styles and interests in a parallel way to our development as human beings. These particular series of dancers, which are available to license through the National Geographic Image Collection, really caught the attention of the editors. I’m not quite sure how it fits or complements my other work, but I can say it’s among my favorite subjects at the moment. I also feel that in order to capture certain scenes, I need to incorporate what I have learned from my previous assignments within other specialties.

Q. How long have you been shooting ballerinas?

A. On a regular basis, it’s been almost three years. On every expedition I embark on I try to do research on the ballets myself, or by interacting with professional dancers who are willing to be part of this project. I have captured the great ballerinas of the Cuban National Ballet, young ballet students in ballet academies in old Cartagena in Colombia and at the school of Maria de Avila in my hometown Zaragoza (Spain). To see a video of this, please click here. Also, if there are any ballet groups or dancers interested in joining this project, I would love to hear from them.

Q. What equipment did you use for these projects?

A. Most of them were captured using a Leica M9 along with 28mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses. My gear has become very simple when I travel around.

Q. You’ve mentioned before that these images and the approach you took have been considered controversial. Why?

A. It was controversial in the sense that my client initially was seeking more traditional ballet images confined to an indoor location. I felt that expanding the concept would bring the ballet closer to non-fans, so they could start appreciating its beauty. The inclusion of cultural elements within most of the shoots arose organically as a natural consequence of my specialization, knowledge and love of Latin America.

Q. In what form or medium do you intend to showcase these images?

A. The idea for this project is to create a coffee table book, which will be then included as part of a traveling show. The production of an iPad application is another option, and I am in the process of finishing a web search engine for dance photos with Smugmug.  I’m still harvesting images from all around Latin America, and I hope to put it out when I feel I have a good variety of unique moments.

Q. Most of the images in your ballet portfolio show dancers in architectural or natural settings. What do you think this conveys about the essential nature of dance and how it integrates into everyday life?

A. We are used to thinking of ballet as an indoor display of beauty and skills. When I got the assignment for the National Ballet of Panama to create images to bring ballet to younger generations, my mind wandered and I started exploring uncommon locations. Then, being a specialist in Latin America and taking advantage of my understanding of the culture, I looked for a deeper relationship between the dancers and their own countries.

Q. Your striking image of a young ballet dancer posed in the midst of ornately baroque Spanish architecture successfully violates the time-honored rule of avoiding distracting backgrounds that draw attention away from the main subject, but it works anyway! Why do you think this is so, and where was the picture taken?

A. Well, as I teach my students, rules should be learned and understood. Then, they should be broken to find our own style.

Q. Your minimalist images showing only a dancer’s legs standing on tiptoe in ballet slippers at the intersection  of two lines, and a ballerina doing a split in front of a blue window convey the essence of purity and precision that define the ballet experience. Do you agree, and can you tell us some more about these photographs?

A. Like in life, simple is normally best. Reducing a composition to its essence is not an easy task, but one that challenges me constantly. Being able to give the viewer a minimalist perspective, when my subjects merge with their surrounding in an almost magical way, is one of my primary goals. And as you say, ballet is all about purity, precision, discipline and beauty.

Q. The mirror image picture of a dancer in a ballet studio standing in a balletic pose and gazing out a window seems to show how ballet transforms a simple everyday act into a transcendent statement about movement and grace. How do you see this image, and what do you think it conveys to those who view it?

A. That photograph captures a daily moment – a moment which any Latin American dancer can relate to. It’s simply the start of the day and the return to the studio to practice more. It was taken in a dancing school in old Cartagena in Colombia. As in photography, ballet is not a race against others; it’s an internal race about self-improvement.

Q. The picture of a ballerina in a pink dress and wearing a gold tiara reclining on lush green grass resembles a flower in bloom, or a fairytale princess. What were you trying to convey or what was in your mind when you took this shot?

A. For many, ballet conveys a fairytale princess flying weightless over the theater stage. It was an effort to show tenderness and the person behind such hard work, dreaming about what the future might bring professionally. It shows the delicacy needed to understand and enjoy the beauty of ballet.

Q. There is almost a surreal quality to your amusing image of a ballerina in a light green tutu bending down to adjust her slipper in the midst of an array of slippers strewn over the floor and hanging on a railing behind her. It’s a masterful composition, but why does it make people smile?

A. This is one of my favorite photographs of all time. It’s timeless. Those slippers are all of the dancing shoes that she kept since she was a child. One photograph captures a career in a composition that resembles a painting.

Q. Another amusing picture shows a line of somewhat pudgy young girls – not the lithe and lissome creatures we usually associate with ballet – in tights and slippers standing in a line. They’re only visible from the waist down. Why did you crop the picture so radically, and do you see any irony in it?

A. It is not uncommon in my style to look at details, or even crop people while taking portraits. I feel it allows the viewers to use their imaginations beyond a normal approach – exploring with their minds the story and the setting captured on the picture. This particular shot was taken in a level zero ballet class, with the support of the parents from this dancing school in Colombia. It shows the beginning of life – the innocent approach of those who may one day become professional ballerinas.

Q. What are some of the unique characteristics of the Leica M9 that make it especially useful for capturing the unconventional and incisive fine art ballet photographs in your portfolio?

A. To begin with, it is a joy to work with. For those who try a Leica for the first time, it might feel strange, because it’s a completely different experience. That happened to me too. But, without realizing it, this piece of gear becomes an extension of your body and vision. Its simplicity makes it easy to fall in love with. Superb quality comes into place of course, plus the design, which allows my subjects to see my face constantly and in a non-obstructive way.

Q. You mentioned that you like to travel light, with only 28mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses for your M9. Which of these do you use most often, and under what circumstances do you switch to the other lens?

A. On many occasions I find myself in remote places in the world, where carrying a large amount of gear might not be safe. Sometimes I arrive at a location to produce a particular type of image only to discover wonderful opportunities that drive my creativity in a different direction. After I was assaulted on arrival from one particular trip, I started to create beautiful images with simple gear. It would take too long to explain the use of each lens, but the 50mm becomes a superb tool for portrait photography and minimalist scenes and the 28mm opens up the views, allowing my subjects to interact with their environments.

Q. How do you see your ballet photography evolving over the next few years, and can you say something more about the things that unite the art of ballet and photography from your perspective?

A. Only destiny knows. What I hope is that in years to come, my passion for capturing our planet will remain intact. I just hope never to stop dreaming, as I always tell people. Regarding ballet and photography, for many, both are acts of love. Life has taught me that love, passion and persistence drive the arts much more than technique once you attain a certain level of knowledge.

A note from Kike:

This post is dedicated to professional ballet dancer Martha Duran, who died on Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 31 years old. I had the pleasure to photograph her while working with the National Ballet of Panama, and I was very sad to hear such bad news. She had been dancing since she was five years old, motivated by both her mother and grandmother who worked at the National School of Dances. As her colleagues called her, Marthita, I hope you will be dancing with the stars.

Thank you, Kike.

-Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to see more of Kike’s work, you can visit his website www.kikecalvo.comFacebook Page and Twitter. Also, if you are interested in purchasing his ballet products through Amazon.com, click here.