Many think of ballet as something trapped in time like a fossil in amber. Perhaps more than most art forms, ballet’s history overshadows its present. Performances take place at an elevated remove: up on a dramatically lit stage, amid classical music; traditional costumes are donned, arcane techniques are executed and French jargon is used to describe it all.
But ballet is more than mere re-enactment. It’s a celebration of human potential, a pursuit of pure expression through strict physical discipline. The emphasis on tradition sometimes obscures this effort, and makes it hard to look at ballet with fresh eyes. That’s where Kay Lavonier’s Ballerina Project, currently on display at the Gallery at the Syracuse Tech Garden, succeeds. By photographing ballerinas venturing beyond their traditional milieu, roaming free in our contemporary reality, Lavonier offers a fresh assessment of both the dancers and where they find themselves.
Except “roam free” isn’t quite how curator Ty Marshal would put it. In his statement for the show he draws a distinction between freedom—“unbridled, unlimited release”—and the “ordered, targeted” discipline of the arts including dance, architecture, sculpture and agronomy. Out on the streets it is easier to see the tension between the planning, diligence and precision of the dancers and the sprawling entropy of the world about them. These juxtapositions of ballet and everyday spaces aren’t about escape from order as much as allowing for the possibility of new order.
Lavonier worked with dancers from the only professional ballet company in the area, Syracuse City Ballet, taking them to locations in and around Syracuse. The majority of the images were created in downtown Syracuse and will be easily recognizable to locals. In one dramatic shot, a tiny girl literally bends over backward, fully suspended midair by a handrail leading up the Onondaga County Courthouse’s stone stairs. The imposing classical bulk of the building with its archways and columns bends in Lavonier’s lens, and all lines converge, stretching toward an infinite height in a gesture that echoes the girl’s.
A stone’s throw away, Columbus Circle was another fruitful location. In one image, a young dancer in a casual top has removed her soft shoes and spreads her arms, perhaps to catch the sun as she passes the Christopher Columbus statue and the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Maybe it’s just me—and a few years of Catholic school—but that pose with head tilting, shoulders back and toes pointing to the ground only makes me think of one thing, and it’s not a walk in the park.
In another visual, four girls sit gossiping on a bench, their backs to The Mission restaurant. Perhaps they are waiting for a table. All wear toe shoes and have crossed their legs in a distinctly uncomfortable-looking manner. Their expressions comically combine rigidity and bored laxity.
Speaking of fruitful locations, the group also visited a local apple orchard. For my money, the most tasteful shot of this bunch focuses on a dancer holding a single apple aloft on her outstretched palm while using the rung of an aluminum ladder as a barre. There are plenty of other pickers paying her no mind, including a cute youngster filling a plastic bag with the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
Some of the most pleasing compositions were created with the Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St., as the backdrop. Three dancers tackle interpreting the wavelike, curling steel sculpture at the entrance. One dancer seems poised to tumble. Where the wave gently swells, another dancer arches her back beneath it. In the center, as the wave breaks at the point of highest tension, the third dancer stands tall on one foot while bending the other high over her head.
One of the images is just plain silly. In it four ballerinas in summer dresses gather on a small patch of grass in front of the Syracuse Newspaper building. They bend, stretch and contort, all angling for a closer look at “America’s most colorful newspaper.” Seriously, if they were such avid readers wouldn’t they be wrestling over a copy of the Syracuse New Times over on Automobile Row?
The Ballerina Project will be on view at the Gallery at The Tech Garden, 235 Harrison St., through May 24. The gallery is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 474-0910.