NEW YORK—What does it take to capture the split-second moment in a dancer’s performance that sums up the beauty of the dance and allows the dancer’s personality to shine through?
Four to five hours of photography, a lifetime of passion for dance, and two skilled and supportive photographers who want to show only the very best.
“The Art of Movement,” by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, is an art book that pays tribute to a lifetime of passion. Over 70 world-class dancers are captured—whether in midair, taking a breath, or holding a simple pose—in beautiful, frozen moments that exude life and personality. Between the stunning images, we get glimpses into these dancers’ lives: quotes about how they started dancing, their challenges and successes, surprising moments in their careers, and what dance means to them.
What started as a decorating project turned into an incredible documentation of some of the best dancers of our time. The book that resulted showcases not only the expressive power of these dancers but also the creative collaboration that went into capturing it.
“There’s not a lot of money in dance, and people really are doing it because they love it. No one becomes a professional dancer for anything but passion,” said Deborah Ory, who has long had a passion for dance.
Ory studied ballet until her teens and later the Martha Graham technique, before turning to photography in order to stay connected to dance after an injury prevented her from dancing.
Both of her daughters dance as well. About three years ago, Sarah, Ory’s older daughter, wanted images of ballet dancers to decorate the walls of her room. As Ory and her husband, Ken Browar, started searching for images, they soon realized that the great dancers of today have rarely been photographed. All the images they found were of the previous generation.
So the couple decided they would take on this project themselves, and reached out via Facebook to a dancer they’d long been fans of—American Ballet Theatre dancer Daniil Simkin. He responded that he’d love to do a shoot with Browar and Ory.
One photoshoot turned into dozens, and the passion project—NYC Dance Project—became an ongoing endeavor to showcase the dancers of our time. The couple branched out to multiple companies and dance styles, with no specific intention aside from wanting to work with the very best.
In the foreword of the book, Simkin wrote that “dance as an art form is bittersweet.” It lives for an instant on stage and then it is gone. That every show is unique is both a feature of its beauty and a loss. This book, he wrote, enables us “to remember these fleeting moments.”
Browar, a renowned fashion and beauty photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Elle, and many European fashion magazines, has always been a visual person. His Greenpoint loft—where the living room doubles as a studio—is filled with art. He started collecting paintings early on, he said, but found that photographs spoke to him more. A single image can tell a story or convey an emotion, a point of view that speaks to you—that stuck with him.
“Art needs to move you,” he said.
Browar said he’d been handed a camera early in life and took to it immediately. Capturing images was a language that complemented him. At 19, he left for Paris. Before returning to the States, he was photographing glossy spreads with A-list celebrities and models for luxury brands.
Photographing a dancer is totally different, he said. You are working with someone who is an artist and a performer; dancers are completely committed to demonstrating their craft to the best of their abilities. It becomes a complete collaboration between artist and artist.
“They know how to perform, they’re not afraid to give you something,” Browar said. He begins by observing the dancers—how they hold themselves, how they move, how they’re dressed—gleaning information about their personalities before they step onto the set. The dancer warms up, and then starts by improvising a bit.
Ory says she and Browar bring a couple of ideas and the dancer brings a few ideas as well, but they don’t go in with anything too preconceived. “The magic happens on set,” she said.
“Every image is a little different,” Ory said. “I don’t think we know when we’re getting into it what we want to capture, but we know when we capture it. Sometimes it’s something that surprises us.”
Browar has a lot he tries to do with the pictures. He tries to capture the artists and show them as celebrities. Sometimes the image tells a story, but that isn’t necessarily the idea behind it. “It’s not just the movement, but I want you to understand a little bit of the weaknesses and strengths within the subject we’re looking at,” Browar said.
The dancer will try a couple of things, the photographers will make some suggestions, and together the artists are fine-tuning the performance until they get three or four shots that everyone is happy with.
“They are as tough as we are on precision of what they want,” Browar said. “You are shooting lines, and in dance, it’s very precise. They’re very conscious of where the hand is, where the foot is. … It can be quite intense with dancers, in a good way.”
It was also a process of learning to work together for Browar and Ory.
“I didn’t understand that collaboration between certain photographers, when you see two names on a photo,” Browar said.
“Being a photographer, you’re really by yourself,” he said. There may be assistants and others on set, but the work is usually really done by just one person. So they started out with two cameras, and eventually moved to just one camera, getting past working around each other to using each other’s strengths to their advantage and supporting each other. It became a pleasurable and special process, Browar said.
On set, it was often just Ory, Browar, the dancer, and maybe a hair and makeup artist.
The duo started out with a costume stylist as well, but they quickly realized that trying on multiple outfits, some suited for dance and others not at all, was not what they wanted for the process. Ory soon took over all the costuming.
Ory had previously worked in commercial photography, including portraits, lifestyle, and food, plus she worked as a photo editor for magazines like House & Garden and Mirabella. She had done everything from hiring photographers to producing shoots, from communications to budgeting, and that became useful knowledge for this project.
She would call up designers and ask to borrow clothing; dancewear companies sent pieces, and sometimes the dance companies could lend their costumes for the shoots as well.
One time, they received a couture swan-inspired gown worth thousands of dollars from Denmark, stuffed in a FedEx box. It was for a shoot with ballerina Misty Copeland, incidentally capturing the historic event of when Copeland became the first African-American dancer promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and cast in the leading role for “Swan Lake.”
They were not able to borrow the costume, so Ory did some research and found a woman in Denmark who made incredible feathered dresses. She sent her a message on Facebook, and the designer wrote back asking for her address.
“She’s an amazing designer, and to this day, she’s still posting pictures of our book and our images, saying how much she admires our work, and it’s been this mutual admiration,” Ory said. “When we got married, she made my wedding dress, from a distance.” They eventually met in New York. Many relationships have been like this, Ory added.
The dancers and their communities have been incredibly supportive as well.
The most important part of the shoot is to capture the images that everyone is happy with. It is a labor of love for all of the artists involved, and the photographers want the dancers to be able to use these images for self-promotion as well. After the photo sessions, the photographers do a question-and-answer session with the dancers to capture their stories and background. Through the project, they become friends and supporters of each other’s work.
From the beginning, social media has been an important part of Ory and Browar’s project.
When the project first began, Simkin posted the images on his social media accounts to the delight of his tens of thousands of followers. There was not much out there quite like Browar and Ory’s photographs, and almost immediately people were reaching out to the couple from around the globe, curious and full of questions.
Throughout the project, they have continued to post images on social media and have gained many supporters and fans. Even after getting a book deal, they fought to be able to continue to share the images online (which are cropped differently from the images in the book).
After this year’s jarring election week, when many were feeling the backlash from the incredibly polarized atmosphere, people were reaching out and thanking them and asking them to keep posting their images “because we need a lot more beauty in this world,” Ory said.
“Everyone will take something different from it,” Ory said. “Some people are just going to like the beautiful bodies, and some people are going to love the beautiful dresses, and some people are going to respond emotionally.”
“And some people who are not interested in dance all of a sudden discover it,” Browar added.
Becoming a Book
The idea of creating a book had always been there, but it was also sort of a dream.
For so long, the project was purely digital, Ory said, so it was an exciting moment when she finally had the book in her hands.
“It was like, this is the real deal,” she said. It also wasn’t easy getting the book deal; publisher after publisher told them dance books just don’t sell well.
Browar said they realized afterward that for dancers, it is all about the performance, all their hard work culminating in the moment on stage. And for photographers, that ultimate experience is creating a book.
They’ve progressed to creating short videos as well, which follows a different creative process and form but is just as fulfilling, and they have plans to move out of the studio and perhaps photograph more dancers on location.
Through the project, Browar says he learned about dance, and Ory was able to once again connect with the art form she feels so passionate about.
Dance and photography both feel universal and timeless to Ory. A photo is a moment frozen in time, but people can still relate to the image and moment years later. She remembers photographing her daughters at dance class, listening to the same music she heard in classes and performing the same movements she had learned. These are music and steps that have been performed by people for years and years, and that will continue to be heard and performed for years and years to come.
“It’s beautiful that you can have a language that is completely through movement that is so universal to everyone,” Ory said. “Pretty much every culture worldwide has some form of dance and some form of communication through movement.”
Three years later, the photographers say they’ve only just cracked the surface of capturing what the dance world has to offer.