The Royal Ballet pictured in style

by Danielle Demetriou

A ballerina stands lightly en pointe in a monochrome photograph, feet arched to perfection and a hand stretched toward the sky. Another dancer mid-arabesque raises her back leg gracefully. A third is frozen leaping through the air with legs stretched into a perfect straight line.

But scattered among the tutus, pink ballet shoes, and classical poses there are signs that these are not conventional ballet shots: Clues include a leather jacket, a silken cravat, a pair of black jeans and — perhaps the biggest giveaway — several striped jumpers.

A new photography exhibition showcases a collaboration between London’s Royal Ballet and the quintessentially British fashion designer Paul Smith, who has shot a series of portrait photographs of the company’s leading dancers.

Fashion and ballet have long overlapped in the creative world. Designers ranging from Coco Chanel to Narciso Rodriguez have historically clamored to create costumes that will be displayed in the dynamic context of a gracefully performing dancer.

And there are few happier ballet-fashion unions than The Royal Ballet and Paul Smith: both regard the same corner of London’s Covent Garden as home — the Royal Opera House for the dancers and the nearby Floral Street store and head office for the designer.

More significantly, both have long been regarded as classic British icons, with the Royal Ballet famous as one of the world’s best dance companies and the designer (and his distinctive striped creations) instantly recognizable as one of Britain’s most popular fashion exports.

“I enjoy any collaboration with creative people — dancers, musicians or actors,” explains Smith. “There is a way that they react in front of the camera, which is very confident and relaxed.

“Photographing the dancers was a very nice experience because they are so professional, they understand very well how to stand and act and, of course, they understand their bodies.”

The new exhibition, on display at the Paul Smith SPACE gallery in Aoyama to coincide with The Royal Ballet’s current Japan tour, consists of portrait shots of The Royal Ballet’s 18 principal dancers at the Royal Opera House.

Shot by Sir Paul over two days earlier this year, the unframed matt black-and-white photographs, which hang simply on string and clips on the walls of the gallery, reflect the designer’s sharp eye for composition.

There is the elegantly curved line created by Marianela Nun~ez as she clings to the barre of a sunlit dance studio, with a checked skirt accessorizing her full pointe ballet shoes.

The iconic architecture of the Royal Opera House is the perfect geometrical backdrop for a brooding shot of Rupert Pennefather, sporting one of Smith’s striped jumpers.

Other highlights include a beautifully composed hat-throwing Ivan Putrov alongside an eclipse-like black circle; cap-clad Sarah Lamb clutching a spotlight; and Japanese ballet legend Miyako Yoshida seductively sitting on a gently curved staircase.

B ut this is no mere fashion shoot. Testimony to this is the freedom that the dancers were given in terms of what they wanted to wear — and in some cases, it was simply their own rehearsal clothes.

Among the most arresting shots is Tamara Rojo, who, standing in the costume department, poses dynamically in her black rehearsal tutu, tights and ballet shoes, one hand on her hip, the other on the tip of a long sharp sword. Inspecting the picture at the exhibition opening, Rojo laughs: “I asked if I could bring a sword and then turned up in my rehearsal clothes. It was over very quickly.

“It was a wonderful experience. Fashion and ballet have always understood each other very well and I hope that there will be more collaborations of this kind in future.”

The project was the brainchild of Steven McRae, the 24-year-old rising Royal Ballet star, who came up with the idea one day while shopping in the nearby Floral Street store.

Speaking at the opening, McRae — who is captured in a white shirt and cravat in his portrait shot — says: “I’ve always loved Paul Smith’s clothes and have been to his Floral Street store a thousand times.

“When I thought of the idea of collaborating, we set up a meeting with him and he was amazing. He took a lot of time to talk with us and discuss ideas.

“It was an inspiring experience being shot by him. He has such an artistic eye and knows instinctively what works.”

McRae, who will also star in Smith’s autumn-winter ad campaign in Japan, adds: “Fashion and ballet go together as well as gin and tonic. They’re the perfect combination. They’re both focused on the aesthetic of beautiful lines and shapes.”

“The Royal Ballet Portraits, by Sir Paul Smith” runs at Paul Smith SPACE, 5-46-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, (03) 5766 1788, till July 6; free admission. For more information, visit www.paulsmith.co.jp/space/gallery/index.html The Royal Ballet will perform “Romeo and Juliet” at the Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya on July 3 as part of its 2010 tour. Although tickets are sold out, returns can often be bought on the day of the performance.