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A Dancer's View

From his very early days growing up as a self-described rebellious kid in St Petersburg, Andre Uspenski has always been a risk taker. He started his ballet training at ten years old, around the same time he picked up a camera and took his first photograph. Following his young childhood in Russia his whole family moved to Berlin (his mother is German) where he would complete his ballet studies at The Berlin State Ballet School. He graduated into the acclaimed Royal Danish Ballet in 1999 and joined The Royal Ballet in 2002. It is there he would stay as a First Artist until his retirement as a dancer in 2015. Andre remained rooted to the Royal Ballet after his retirement by continuing to photograph rehearsals and performances for the company. He launches his first exhibition Andre Uspenski: A Dancer’s View on April 28 at the Old Truman Brewery, London.

How did this exhibition come about? 

Since my first book was published I’ve always thought about having an exhibition of some kind. For whatever reason it hasn’t come to fruition until now. But then I met Henry Miller and Katrine Levin (Levin Miller is a collaboration between Katrine Levin Galleries and Henry Miller Fine Art) who were interested in sponsoring the project. We devised a theme together and the rest is history. 

Thiago Soares, Principal of the Royal Ballet Company, London

What can we expect to see? 

It’s about shape, a dancer’s body, and athleticism. I’ve used pieces from my archive and brand new work created especially for this exhibition. I’ve used some of my archive work as I believe some images are more suited to the right moment and a certain time in order to build some context, whereas others should be seen immediately. I edited over ten thousand images down to one hundred, then those hundred down to around thirty-five which you can see in the show. 

During this process, observing your new work and pieces from your archive, has your style evolved and has your approach to taking a photograph changed? 

Definitely! In life I always get influenced by situations and people. I don’t just wake up one day and know what to do, I don’t believe it happens like that. I’m always observing everything around me - people, exhibitions, paintings and shows. All of these elements then feed into my work to create something original to me. So in that respect I imagine my style and approach to always be evolving.

Steven McRae #1, Principal of the Royal Ballet Company, London

How has your experience as a dancer influenced your work? 

Hugely! I think as a dance photographer you need to be a casting director and choreographer at the same time. You have to know when to direct people so you can achieve the shot and obviously my technical knowledge helps with this. On the other hand I do think the two practices are fundamentally different. As a dancer all you have to do is concentrate on yourself, making sure you’re in shape and achieving perfect technique. I spent so many years at the barre and all I had to concentrate on was myself, whereas as a photographer my job is to make everyone else look great. You really have to put your ego aside to achieve the best results possible. 

Are there any other creatives you look up to or particularly admire? 

I take quite an aspirational approach to my work. I do look at other people’s work, in many different mediums and my approach is to create images as good or better as I consider their work to be. I think this stems back to all those years of having early morning ballet classes everyday, always comparing myself to the man or woman next to me, always striving to be better. I’ve adopted this healthy competitiveness to my photography work, but I just think it happens in a slightly more organic subconscious way. So yes I am inspired by other people but I can’t pin point any particular artists, because I pull from so many different frames of reference. 

When did you first pick up a camera and start taking pictures? 

I was 10 years old. It was a film camera so I spent some time in the dark room with my father. It’s this process which was so interesting to me. My father taught me a lot about the skill of taking a photograph, good composition and keeping your hand steady. It was purely instinctive though, as soon as my dad reloaded the camera I would just start taking more pictures. Even to this day I’ll often grab my camera and start walking around the city photographing people or situations on the street - capturing life as it happens really inspires me. 

Yanina Parienko #4, Soloist of the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Moscow

What was your favourite thing to do as a child? 

Well I was quite mischievous to be honest, a real rebel. So I was more interested in getting into trouble. But when we had money for film I would always be taking photographs. 

How do you approach a shoot? 

Quite simply I respond to my subject in the moment. I normally have twenty or thirty minutes so it’s really important to make a connection and make them feel comfortable. More often than not I will have a good understanding of their style, and this combined with my personal experience as a dancer gives me the tools to make sure my subject looks natural in front of the camera. That’s my aim anyway! 

Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson, Principals of the Royal Ballet Company, London

Were there any challenges that you met whilst photographing rehearsals and performances for the Royal Ballet? 

Because I spent so long in the Royal Ballet as a dancer, I knew the other dancers inside out. I could sense their preparations so I knew instinctively when I would get a good shot, the only thing I couldn’t guess was whether their eyes would be open or closed. I knew who had wonderful lines, the best jumps and everyone has a great face of course. Dancers are unbelievably unique. I love photographing their rehearsal time in the studio just before a performance, but it is such a private time, and such an important moment for the dancers that I had to gain the skills to blend into the background ground and be invisible. It was easy for me to appreciate how private and critical that rehearsal time was as I did it myself for so many years. As a dancer, to fully place yourself within a role takes a huge amount of personal preparation. 

(left) Fernando Montaño #1, Soloist of the Royal Ballet Company, London (right) Yanina Parienko #1, Soloist of the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Moscow

Is there a defining style or narrative to your work? 

Some people would say yes but that’s not the way I approach my work. I try to remain deliberately naive so that I approach every project with a totally fresh eye. I want to remain spontaneous. Sometimes it will take hours to get the shot, other times you’ll get lucky and find it within a few minutes. 

And when you find “it”, what typically is that? 

It’s a happy feeling, something instinctive. Because when you know you’ve got it, you’ve got it!

Is there anyone or anything you admire in the people you photograph? 

I admire natural talent and gifted people. It’s amazing to witness a natural performer who is unaware of their affect on other people. Someone going through their career, having an amazing time doing it whilst also giving people such joy. It’s unbelievable, and a privilege to watch.

Sander Blommaert #5, Former First Artist of the Royal Ballet Company, London

And finally, who do you think is the next big star of British ballet? 

There are so many wonderful dancers, all with so much talent and dedication. From the more established dancers to the new upcoming talents, I love to watch them all. Everyone brings something unique. 

Andre Uspenski: A Dancer’s View runs from April 28 - 16 May, at the Old Truman Brewery, London. 

  • Andre was interviewed by Samuel John Weeks & Tim Duncan
  • All photography by Andre Uspenski
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