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On Location with Avant Chamber Ballet

In May 2015 I was asked to photograph the Avant Chamber Ballet in Dallas, TX. ACB is the only truly Dallas based chamber ballet. Their Artistic Director, Katie Cooper resides in Dallas and has turned the ballet community on its ear with her innovative and critically acclaimed ballet creations. Katie Puder (Cooper) danced for years with Arlington’s well-respected Metropolitan Classical Ballet. One of the many aspects which sets ACB above other dance companies is their use of live world class orchestra musicians in their performances. Many are working musicians with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which is a double plus. We work regularly with them on both production and publicity imagery for their marketing campaigns.


What was so attractive about being asked to develop publicity photography for her Company’s 2015-16 season was her willingness and enthusiasm to ‘try something new’ for imagery. Yes, dance is my favorite subject to photograph, but even more so when I’m asked to shoot something ‘out of the norm.’ Because they are a Dallas based company her only desire was to photograph her dancers in and around recognizable landmarks in the Dallas Arts District. Katie is a very ‘even’ soul, someone who does not wear her feelings on her sleeve. So when we suggested some of the venues including a graffiti area for the shots, her eyebrows raised just a bit. Classic ballerinas with graffiti? Hum…

One of the physical challenges of the shoot were two items; Dallas summer heat and humidity and having to conduct all of the on location sessions in a single day. For anyone who has done on location shooting, a single or double location is a challenge – six locations in one day in spots all over the city? Insane! So after checking sunrise/sunset along with the heat/humidity index for the day, we chose to begin our day at 7:00am CST, just after sunrise. This would provide us with mild temperatures in the morning as well as my ability to easily overcome bright ambient light. I opted to split the sessions into morning and late afternoon to avoid the midday Dallas summer heat and humidity. It proved to be a good decision since after our late morning sessions everyone including me were ‘wilting’ in the heat. And heck I was not dancing!

Christy patiently waits for me to set up lighting for her shot at the AT&T Infinity Pool.
Not only is she a phenomenal dancer, but she’s ALWAYS smiling!

The other challenge was using self powered portable strobes to light the dancers and the associated landmarks. Adding to that I wanted to produce an image around a sculpture I had sourced with smoke, real smoke to add to the environment. So in advance I shipped my smoke machine to Dallas despite all of the UPS restrictions of the fluid I use it arrived safely and on time. Inspected of course, but they kindly repacked the fluid in a waterproof bag

Shipping all of our gear on an airline as checked baggage is also a monumental feat! Five portable battery powered strobes capable of shooting in HSS, light stands, modifiers of various types, grip equipment, camera and tethering gear and triggers all packed into Pelican cases and a hard sided golf bag made the trip safely

Our first venue was the AT&T infinity pool just outside the Meyerson Performing Arts center. The mood I wanted to create was one of night time with a reflection of the dancer’s leaping into the air. The drama of rim lit dancers over a pool of water that is like glass would be very dramatic. Add to that the ‘invisible’ trellis above the ladies reflecting in the water would add interest to the shot.

We then moved to the Pegasus sculpture located just adjacent to the Infinity Pool. A very large metal sculpture with beautiful patina. It certainly was a challenge to light such a large piece of art, but four strobes did the trick. The fifth one was used on the ballerina to make her ‘pop’ against the darkness of Pegasus.

Pegasus waiting for his photo opp.
Yours truly placing lights around the sculpture while the ladies occupy themselves.
Emily completely upstages poor Pegasus!
Emily prepares to become ‘an angel!’
The final shot of the talent in front of the wings.
The final shot of Emily in front of her angel wings.

From the Arts District Angel wings we then moved to the Graffiti town. Dallas allows graffiti artist to apply their art in an old abandoned warehouse area. The art is constantly changing since the artist collaborate on whose art will remain and which paintings will be covered with new art. It’s quite a remarkable area. My initial thought was the venue would make a fantastic juxtapose between the elegant art of ballet with the grittiness of graffiti art. As I had mentioned at the beginning of this article, Katie was a bit reticent initially to the concept, but once she saw the concept, she was completely enthusiastic! And the dancers seemed very excited to be in the venue as well.

Natalie preps Christy’s tutu for her shot.
This beautiful freshly painted wall mural was in one of the rooms in Graffiti Town. The room was very small and I wanted some dramatic light to frame Natalie’s wonderful jump. So I placed one monoblock strobe outside of the window about 7 feet in the air to cast a diagonal beam of light across the mural and Natalie.
Getting set up for my “Ballerina in a Box” shot. A simple two light setup using two AD360 bare bulb strobes. One in the foreground to cast shadows on the ground and to illuminate the wall art. The second key light placed high above the talent in the box with a gridded cone to contain the light.
Showing Emily some of the light test shots for mood before we begin.
I swear Christy makes me smile simply because she’s always smiling! I believe I’m asking her if she felt she could jump in that tiny space. As you can see, she’s enthusiastic about the task at hand. She’s great!
OK this is one of my favorite shots in Graffiti Town! Why? Well this artist was working there that day and I asked, “Hey Man, do you want to be photographed with three HOT ballerinas?” His reply? “DUDE are you $hitting me? Are you SERIOUS!?” So I explained the ‘mood’ I wanted for this shot. He’s a reluctant man being seduced by three ballerinas. My instructions to the ladies? “Each of you wants HIM and so you need to bring your flirting A Game to this little exercise. Make him want YOU and not any of the others.” The rest is history….
Emily’s exquisite leap in a tiny space! So cool!
As usual Little Christy comes through with her on point leap! (I told her NOT to smile!)

It was at this point when we all took our mid afternoon break before heading to our two final venues. Being inside of a sheet metal building in mid day Dallas summer heat was not much fun. The ladies were all fantastic, but I certainly did not want to risk their health. So we took a four hour break before moving onto the famed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

The plan was to arrive at the MHHB around 5:30. This was to be a one light setup since the sun was low enough that the dancer’s would be lit in golden light camera left. To add production value to the scene I used a 600ws monoblock light camera right to greatly reduce the ambient light to make both the sky/dancer and bridge pop.

Natalie poses as I get my light set up for her shot at the Bridge.
“OK Natalie, there’s no falling off of the ledge today OK?! We have one more shot to do after this so I need you!”
Natalie’s final shot at the Bridge with a bleach bypass post processing layer applied.

The final session of the day was my most ambitious and difficult. I have no idea why I save that type of shot for the end of a long day! My plan was to photograph the dancers in front of an incredible sculpture I had seen when shooting for the DSO’s Soluna Festival at the Latino Cultural Center. As soon as I had seen the sculpture I mentioned to one of the DSO Marketing employee’s “I’m going to use that sculpture for a ballet session I have here later next month!” She looked at me, then looked at the sculpture with a look of complete befuddlement and simply said “UH OK Mark, whatever you say….”

Why was this shot so difficult to achieve? In a word, smoke… I had mentioned that I shipped one of my portable smoke machines to Dallas specifically for this shot. Dallas seldom has anything more than a breeze in the summer. But on this day it was damn windy! Keeping smoke contained in wind is something only fools attempt and well…I’m a fool. The second and more frustrating element is one of my strobes began failing to fire. Now I can understand smoke and wind, but I test my gear well before using it so gear failure isn’t something I count on. Thankfully I always bring a back up so swapping out the unruly strobe was less of a problem. My view is a photographer should ALWAYS MAKE the talent’s job easy. It’s MY job to keep them engaged and enthusiastic. So any issues that I cannot resolve is always in my own view MY fault. It’s just part of the deal.

Well the stars aligned and I was able to achieve a few shots with the smoke/wind’s cooperation.

The sculpture without smoke and after swapping out the ‘bad Rovelight’ in the back of the sculpture. That light was intended to illuminate the smoke. As you can see the ladies are patiently waiting for me to get my shit together before the fun begins!
Kaitlyn maintains her hand/stance position perfectly so I can achieve a flare just under her hand. Working with true pros is such a pleasure! Thanks Kaitlyn!!!
FINALLY the smoke and wind cooperate which allows me to get this shot of all four ladies.
I have a real love/hate relationship with smoke and wind. But when I see her in this shot, it makes it all worthwhile.

So after loads of planning and Dallas summer heat I can simply say these sessions were so satisfying. Working with professional dancers is an incredible experience simply because of the commitment to their art. Their love for ACB and each other is so palpable and made a very long day seem effortless. And when an AD’s motives are to ensure that her company is represented with innovation and truly working ‘outside of the box’ well what could be more satisfying. Thank you to all of these incredible artists. I could not be more honored to be associated with each and every one of you.

My partner’s BTS video of these sessions:

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