Unfamiliar Angles, Precious Moments

March 17, 2016

Young dancers wait backstage for their cue during a spring dance recital at Chandler Music Hall a quarter century ago. Standing quietly apart from the younger children is Chelsea Knight, now an internationally acclaimed performance and video artist. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

I have two sons. As a 10-year-old, the younger loved to tap dance. He made his stage debut dancing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” with a host of little girls and one other boy in a spring recital at Chandler Music Hall. It was an important event for him.

Later, following university study, Isaac became a member of Blue Man Group, performing onstage for 12 years before getting an MFA in theater and becoming a drama professor at Johnson State College.

Perhaps only a few having early stage experience become involved in theater professionally as adults. All, however, are profoundly affected by the experience. Walking out into the bright light of a large stage and performing before hundreds of people is challenging. It can be life changing.

Capturing the Moment

Each spring in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I tried to photograph recitals at Chandler for The Herald. Early attempts were largely unsuccessful.

The images were bland, perhaps acceptable as a record for the family album, but not memorable photographs.

Careful critique revealed some of the shortcomings. First, relying on the very simple frontal lighting of the theater resulted in images with almost no depth or definition in the dancers. The light was similar to that from an on-camera flash. It’s called “pan-caking.” The facial features and form are flattened, made to look, well, like pancakes!

Those first attempts were taken from the most common vantage point, out front in the house.

In the early 20th century, stage paintings, prints, and pastels by the French artists Edgar Degas and Toulouse Lautrec captured performing dancers from more interesting, intimate angles, positions close to the front and side of the stage. From here there is foreshortening of form, overlapping of the dancers, and lighting rakes across the side of the face, creating depth and drama.

Behind the Curtain

I clearly remember the moment I decided to photograph from backstage, rather than from the front of the house. It’s total mayhem behind the curtains for these dance recitals. Tittering little girls and teens are running here and there, offstage and onstage, hushed and herded by instructors as they try to cope with boundless pent-up energy. One step among this throng in the offstage darkness sent me running for the ladder, escaping to scaffolding high above, where I could quietly compose myself, and perhaps a photograph as well.

It was a great decision. I had a clear view of the dancers, the angles were unexpected, interesting. The light, rising from footlights at the front of the stage, was dramatic, just like that so beautifully captured in France a century before.

Stage Whisper

One moment that afternoon, the dancers placed themselves in positions too wonderful for words. I recorded the scene in this photograph.

The space in this image is divided between the open area of the angled stage floor-boards in the lower third and, above, the curtained darkness contrasting with brightly costumed dancers catching the light.

We note the dancers are of different ages. The youngest stand to the right of the frame. From there, they are arrayed in ascending order at the same angle as the glow rising from the footlights off-camera to the right.

The tallest of the dancers stands alone, separated from those younger dancers by a dark vertical swath of curtain.

Her eyes direct our attention to what’s happening onstage. This is for her a quiet, contemplative moment.

From this first dancer, our eye proceeds down to the next girl. Like her older counterpart, she is mesmerized by the spectacle we cannot see. She is younger, but her attitude strongly echoes the quiet of her partner at the back of the drape.

Proceeding further, we come to a girl whose attention is not upon the stage, but given wholly to the smallest girl at the end of the row. She leans down to hear something being whispered from behind the upturned hand.

Up until this point in the scene, this offstage drama has been quiet. Everything has directed our attention away and out to the action on the dance floor. Now, however, our ear as well as our eye is drawn by this animated, private word. Another girl at the back seems to be leaning in, hoping to hear what we, removed from the scene, cannot. We feel excitement, the animation of clandestine sharing by young girls, at this moment more children than dancers.

I titled this photograph “Stage Whisper,” for this is truly the compelling center of the photograph. A true stage whisper is, of course, a whisper uttered onstage loudly enough for the audience to hear. While I doubt anyone but those very close could hear this whisper, I like the way the caption plays with the image.

I love, too, the way the hand and body positions change from girl to girl. The eldest stands back, turned demurely from the light, her arms crossed, mutually held above the elbow. By contrast, the next is fully open to the light, arms slightly crossed, one hand rising, with seeming emotion, to collar bone and throat. Each successive girl stands further out onto the stage.

The third’s hands are cupped, almost in supplication, as she receives the whispered word from the fourth, full of conspiratorial buzzing energy, hands up and away, oblivious to the upcoming cue for entrance to the stage.

The Larger Stage

We all share a wonderful resource in Chandler Center for the Arts. Each year, countless young people are profoundly influenced by early arts experiences through this important regional center.

Consider these young people I photographed backstage at Chandler years ago. How were their lives positively changed by early arts experiences like this dance recital?

I know one person pictured here, the girl standing alone at the back, quietly watching, anticipating her entrance.

Chelsea Knight is now an internationally regarded video and performance artist. After Randolph, she pursued a B.A. in English at Oberlin College, followed by study at Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, an M.F.A. at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Fulbright Fellowship in the Arts at Michelangelo Pistoletto Foundation, Biella, Italy.

In 2015, Knight was New Museum Artist in Residence in New York City, creating “Fall To Earth,” a series of live events and video productions. Collaborating with Autumn Knight, she created “Knight & Knight, Latencies,” at the Center for Experimental Lectures. At Storm King Sculpture Park, New Windsor, NY, she premiered “Chelsea Knight: What is Document?”

These are just a few facets in the life of Chelsea Knight, and she is only one of many pictured here!

Infinitely more is anticipated in this instant, this telling moment in the lives of young dancers photographed backstage at Chandler over a quarter century ago.

With the Bard we affirm, “All the world’s a stage.” These children are about to make the entrance of a lifetime.

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