Nine years ago, a young photographer walked up New York City’s Broadway towards the highly patronised and well known STEPS dance studios. Dane Shitagi was in search of a ballet dancer who could help him begin his project: to capture images of ballerinas in urban environments. Now, the Ballerina Project has over 82,000 fans on Facebook, securing its place as a global ballet sensation. A self-confessed ‘outsider’, Shitagi has never done a professional plié in his life, but had his hands on a camera from a tender age. Unable to explain where his passion for dance came from, Shitagi remarks, “before I started the Ballerina Project I had no connection to ballet at all. It made it quite difficult at first. It really has taken nine years to understand ballet itself. Now I think I understand what’s happening when a dancer’s lines are no good”.
Lithe ballet dancers arrange their limbs into perfect arabesques against backdrops of ranging structures as the public look on in interest and, often, confusion. Removed from her familiar environment marked by tarkett and barres, the ballerina is placed against towering bridges, landmarks, and graffiti covered walls. Shitagi commends the New York City suburb of D.U.M.B.O. as his favoured backdrop, but he occasionally travels to Boston to work with a few of the girls from Boston Ballet. The photographer believes, “locations are secondary. It is the dancer who is important – that’s why I go up to Boston. They have talented dancers who want to work with me”.
Shitagi’s work celebrates the form, physicality, and most importantly the emotion of his subject, and he notes that “it is always collaboration between myself and the dancer.” He feels the pursuit of capturing movement is futile because of the very nature of the art form – “Dance cannot be captured by a still photograph.” Shitagi’s focus is on the ballerina herself. “It’s the emotion of the dancer; how she is intertwined with the environment. The best way to capture dance is with motion – you need the sound, the fluidity. You take all of that away and it’s like breaking down a poem to leave just single words; those words become meaningless. The way the words are combined are what makes it poetry.’
Shitagi could never have anticipated the phenomenon that the Ballerina Project has become. With the help of Facebook, the project has managed to align itself with mainstream culture in a way, Shitagi believes, ballet has failed to do so in the past – “It’s a credit to the project itself but also to the dance world. It actually can become quite beautiful… the way people react to it. Sometimes people are very unfamiliar with ballet. I’ve been fortunate because working on this project I’ve been exposed to a lot of great dance”.
Shitagi credits the success of the Ballerina Project to a mantra most ballet dancers would find familiar: “A lot of it is luck and a lot of it is perseverance. It comes down to the passion the dancer and I put into it. You can’t just have the dancers going through the motions.” Shitagi’s subtle images capture the ballerina in all her mystique, yet equally manage to bring her seductively close to reality.