Built on Toil
Designer: Liron Kormas, Kormas Studio
Dancers: Joffrey Ballet School
Photographer: Angela Cappetta
What inspired you to develop this body of work, is ballet in your background?
I trained until I was about 20 but was never professionally serious about it. Since I live nearby, I’d see the dancers everyday. At the deli, coffee shop, drug store. I wanted to photograph them in their environment, but that was all I knew. So one day I sat down and wrote a letter to the director of the Joffrey.
Included was a project statement for pictures which didn’t exist yet. It was called: Built on Toil, which likened the trainees to soldiers doing a job under command of a general. I saw it clearly: TriX and a 6×9 punched up with the bare bulb of a Lumedyne. All I needed was for him to say yes. Later that day he wrote back (I almost fell off my chair.)
He explained that as he is bombarded with requests from photographers he customarily says no. However, he was so struck by the clarity of the proposal, he offered complete access for as long as I wanted. The next day I started, and continued for two years.
Is your intent an art book or self published piece?
At first, I just wanted to photograph, but now that its been a few years, I’ve roughed up the prints in my darkroom and have a better idea of how the pictures should look.
The current promotional piece, designed by Liron Kormas of Kormas Studio, for now, is the bridge between this and a future book, which I’ll work on next. This iteration of the project was entirely Liron’s idea. She asked me if she could design it and I jumped at the chance. She’s brilliant.
How do you think your images express discipline before maturity, as that is normal practice in ballet to start at such a young age?
Discipline is something that has to be cultivated very early in order to shape any athlete. In that regard, it’s a very adult series of decisions to be physically and mentally challenged so seriously. Then, the dancers grow into the discipline, and they decide what their aspirations are. Some continue training, others start auditioning. One of the trainees from the Joffrey got a job in the touring cast of Cats right out of conservatory, another dances with a company full time. They aren’t all that lucky but I don’t think that matters to them.
Were the dancers self conscious around you?
I’ll admit there was a lot of me trying not to get kicked in the head. But these are consummate professionals. That’s part of their training. An elephant could drop in the center of that studio and they wouldn’t break focus. On the floor in the middle of their routines with my gear in their faces, they’d glide around me.
What tools did you use to break into their inner circle?
The dancers were incredibly gracious. They welcomed me. I’m still in touch with them. I even cast one as a model for an upcoming editorial.
How long has this this body of work taken you to shoot?
It was a two year shooting project and another year of printing. But it percolated years before that.
What did you learn about drive and determination from these dancers?
I’m interested in photographing the fundamental basis of life as it is meaningful to that particular journey. The takeaway from every project is different. This one was a parallel to my own daily discipline to live an artist’s life. You’re in it or you aren’t. If you’re not completely, totally 100% there, then you shouldn’t even bother.
Seeing the dancers working together reminded me that having a community of respectable colleagues is important at any stage of development. Some of them would show up at night, go into an empty studio, push play, and hit their routines hard, just to do it. It was beautiful to watch.
When I was in my darkroom. I’d see that determination in the tray and something would amp up inside of me and I’d readdress how the print looked or what I wanted from it. It was infectious. I’d look at my feet, which were in fifth position.