Back in October 2020, I enrolled in a dance photography workshop run by Jack Thomson. Jack is a professional contemporary dancer and photographer/filmmaker. He has oodles of knowledge in capturing dancers and getting the best out of them. It was an incredible opportunity to work with experts in their fields, and to learn as much as possible.
We met in St. Pauls, London, and worked with Charlotte Tonkinson in the morning, a company member of The Royal Ballet. She was so friendly and down to Earth (as well as being a truly beautiful person), which helped to put us photographers at ease. Jack gave us each some time to photograph Charlotte, and he gave us some pointers on how to direct her, and how to develop an idea or a pose to give it more depth and interest. A huge insight for me was how much you can influence how the model interacts with their surroundings. For example, by asking them to imagine the floor is melting away, or it's raining maple syrup, completely changes their face and their movements, and makes for a much more fascinating image. It was a lightbulb moment for me, because these are techniques I regularly use when teaching dance, so it was almost a passageway to allow me to draw upon my teaching methods within photography sessions.
My favourite moment with Charlotte was when I asked her to become a creature on a park bench, exploring the bench as though she'd never seen it before. To watch a ballerina usually full of poise and smiles, morph into an otherworldly creature, crawling on a bench in her pointe shoes, was so much fun.
We also had an exercise to direct Charlotte into a particular position from a photograph, without showing her the photograph. It was very hard for me to not use ballet terminology or to try to do it myself! Once we managed the position, we then experimented with more interesting perspectives to capture the position or movement.
Charlotte was honestly such a joy to spend a morning with; she offered so much, and I really enjoyed working with her. She’s a truly sublime ballet dancer.
In the afternoon, we met Jacob O’Connell, who is a contemporary dancer with the renowned Company Wayne McGregor. I have always been so fascinated by Wayne McGregor’s work and his astounding creativity, so I was pretty starstruck to be working with one of his company members.
With Jacob, the first thing we did was watch him improvise. No taking photos, just observing. This helped us to understand more about Jacob’s style, and we each noticed things that we may want to focus on during our time with Jacob. For example, I noticed the impact that his hands have on expressing himself through movement, so I used his hands as a way of connecting to the lens of the camera. Sometimes I would direct his hand to be reaching towards the camera, or sometimes I would be following his hands as the sole focus. This observation technique is what Jack called a ‘dancer’s portrait’, where we are looking further into what it is about them as a dancer that makes them who they are. I thoroughly enjoyed this more intimate way of working and connecting with the subject. Jacob had so much to offer through his emotive face and his beautiful movements, and I gradually felt more comfortable directing him.
We moved to our final location with a giant metal structure, which provided interesting angles to work with. Jack got us to work with ideas such as Rudolf Laban’s Planes, and Wassily Kandinsky’s dancer drawings. With the Laban planes of movement, you can work with an initial shape or position, but distort it by directing different body parts to different planes. With the Kandinsky idea, we drew our own abstract shapes, and asked Jacob to replicate the shape using dynamic movement. This creates some original positions which I would struggle to pre-empt. Everything was a collaboration between dancer and photographer, and capturing what happened in the moment.
Jack allowed me to see how far you can push ideas, and how much you can ask the dancers to do, to unveil a new or unexplored side to them. I came away from that day feeling like I had a new found confidence, but also knowing that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and there is so much more to learn and develop. I couldn’t wait to go to my first photoshoot after this workshop, to hone in on some of the new skills I had picked up from Jack and the dancers. I am so grateful, it was such an invaluable experience, and I draw upon those skills all the time.