Artists on both sides of the lens

By Ruth Davis

At each of Festival Ballet Providence’s performances patrons are given a copy of the season’s Playbill, a beautiful, glossy overview of the company, and its Thirty-Ninth 2016-2017 Season. The booklet contains information audiences would expect to find in a Playbill: a welcome message from the artistic director, Misha Djuric, details about the company’s history, biographies of the dancers, and information about other parts of the organization.

But the images in this year’s edition are anything but expected, starting with its arresting cover photo–a beautiful image of a dancer, who seems to be in rehearsal, her foot en pointe and her arm arced as it moves around her body, her skirt in motion swooping around her. This photograph and others throughout the program are the work of Shawn Guo, a junior at RISD, who participated in an ongoing partnership between FBP and RISD, a photography workshop, “Photo/Graphic,” taught by Franz Werner, a professor at RISD for more than 30 years.

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Professor Werner approached FBP 2 years ago, believing that photographing dancers would be a wonderful for inexperienced photography students to experiment and learn new ways to observe. “I thought it would be exciting for the students to see professional dancers and to use their cameras to explore the world of ballet.” He added that this idea was well calculated. “It’s truly profound the way that this program stimulates all kinds of creative interpretation, Shawn’s work being a good example.”

Shawn was impressed by watching the way the dancers rehearsed. “I tried to be subtle and not disturb the dancers, and I was aware of a little uneasiness they may have been feeling.” He took some head shots to find an angle that would be interesting, and then began to experiment with long exposures and motion photography. During the class, students walk around the studio, sit on the floor, or stand on the sidelines.

RISD students photograph FBP dancers
RISD students photograph FBP dancers in rehearsal

Shawn said that the figures in the photographs themselves express the motion and energy of the dancers. “I didn’t want color to take away the energy and dynamic aspect the figures carried when they were moving, jumping, etc.”

“At the end of the session,” said Shawn, “I processed the photos and really liked the way they turned out.” He assembled them into a portfolio of the best work from the class and presented it to Misha and Dylan Giles, FBP’s marketing director. Dylan and Misha immediately understood the artistic quality and thought they would be a wonderful way to illustrate this season’s Playbill.

An unanticipated benefit of participating in this workshop was that Shawn appreciated how hard the dancers work and how physical and mentally demanding their job is. “I was so impressed by how they have to constantly train, going over and over routines over again, trying to get to absolute perfection.” He said he could relate their practicing to his own work and how he tries to do the best he can do.

For many of the students, this was their first exposure to ballet.  Shawn, however, had an inside-look at the San Francisco Ballet this past summer, where a family friend has been a guest choreographer for 40 years. Shawn said, “Overall I am really happy I took the class and where it led, in terms of the work I produced.  It was a great experience.”

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Shawn Guo is a Graphic Design major at RISD, class of 2018. shawnguo.com

Ruth Davis manages public relations for Festival Ballet Providence. ruthdavisassociates.com

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