“I like to think that we’re turning the world into our stage,” the photographer Dane Shitagi tells me. For over more than two decades, he’s collaborated with well over a hundred professional ballerinas, setting up in breathtaking locations across the globe. “I’m looking at it almost as if the dancers are dancing within their own imaginations,” he says. “We’re all explorers, and we’re all products of our environments. There’s something spiritual about discovering our world in this way.”
The result of their adventures and countless early mornings is Ballerina Project (Chronicle Books). It’s a stunning book of 170 photographs made over the course of eighteen years in cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Paris, Rome, and London. We asked the artist to tell us more about his career, his travels, and the dancers who’ve inspired him.
Featured Image: Francesca Hayward – Trafalgar Square, London. Francesca is a principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet and also starred in the movie Cats.
The Essential Gear of Dane Shitagi
Shitagi tells us,
“When I started this project in the year 2000, I was shooting film. One of the last cameras I really worked with film-wise was the Fuji 690 GW II, a medium format camera. You get eight 6×9 shots off of a 120 roll, so it’s a very deliberate camera. Through the years, I’ve embraced digital, and I believe we’re living in a golden era for photography equipment. Right now, I have a Sony a1, and the vast majority of my images I create with the Zeiss Otus 55mm lens. I’ve also gone through a lot of 35mm lenses and am currently shooting with the Sigma. I usually shoot with natural/ambient light, and once in a while, in bright sunlight, I’ll use a polarizer filter.”
Phoblographer: How did you get started as a photographer?
Dane Shitagi: I started photographing at the age of ten. When I was fifteen years old, I got a job at a photo company in Oahu, where I grew up, that did both photography and also had a color photo lab. From there, I moved to New York in January of 1996 to pursue a career, though at the time, my interest was mostly in fashion photography. I ended up doing something very, very specific instead. But I believe in specializing as a photographer. If you’re a jack of all trades and try to shoot everything, you really never get to know anything from the inside out.
Phoblographer: Your very first shoot from the series was at a waterfall in Honolulu, Hawaii, featuring the ballet student, Claire. How did this session come about?
Dane Shitagi: The idea originally started when I was hiking to and photographing waterfalls at home in Oahu with my friend Charlie. At around the same time, I just so happened to come across something on PBS about ballet. From there, I just had the idea to put a dancer in a beautiful waterfall. I always saw the waterfalls I photographed as living creatures. They had life and, in many ways, danced.
At the time, I didn’t have any plans of doing a grander project. I was exposed to very little ballet growing up in Hawaii, and trying to find a ballet student was quite difficult, especially in Oahu. And this was pre-social media!
But as it happened, the high school I had graduated from had become more of a performing arts school. In 1994, I contacted one of my former teachers, Gail Ikeda. I asked her if she knew anyone who was a ballet student, and she recommended Claire. Claire was thirteen years old at the time, so her mother, Catherine, helped set it up. Without them, the project might not exist.
We actually built a platform that was to be submerged into the pool of the waterfall and carried it for approximately two miles into the Manoa Valley rainforest. Claire and I have stayed in touch as she’s grown into a woman and mother. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two girls.
Phoblographer: The Ballerina Project was started in New York City in 2000. What did you learn as you began to navigate the world of ballet?
Dane Shitagi: I think ballerinas really appreciate it if you understand their struggles and what they have to go through. As a photographer, you have to understand what’s good for them and what’s bad for them. For example, you see a lot of photographs of jumping dancers, and that’s fine, but jumping a dancer over and over again on a hard surface is probably one of the worst things you can do to their bodies. You can only jump them for so long before you risk injuring them, and to injure a dancer for a photograph would be a very selfish thing to do as a photographer
When it comes to the Ballerina Project, we talk with the ballerinas that we are photographing beforehand to understand what they believe their bodies can endure for a given shoot. As each shoot progresses, we monitor the situation with how their bodies are feeling, and we leave it up to the ballerina to decide what we do or don’t do for that shoot. If a ballerina is okay with doing a few jump images, we typically reserve these images for soft surfaces such as a beach or a field of grass.
Phoblographer: What do your shoots normally look like?
Dane Shitagi: How we approach working with each individual is determined by that particular ballerina and the environment that surrounds us. Every ballerina is unique, and I usually try to work with their strengths as a ballerina and also as a person beyond the stage.
With the dancers I work with regularly, a lot of the time is spent on corrections, where we’re basically fine-tuning what we’re doing and making small tweaks in the arms or hands, for example. The tricky thing is that a still photograph will show everything that’s wrong. You can scrutinize every detail to the nth degree, and dancers are the most critical of themselves.
On top of the physical elements of ballet, we also put a lot of focus on internalizing the moments that we are photographing. It is meaningful to have the ballerina be equally present in their imagination as they are within the physical environment.
With that being said, getting to the location, planning, and setting up can take much longer than the shoot itself. Many of my sessions of late have been what I call “expeditions,” where we’re shooting over a number of days versus a single shoot of about four hours. When I worked with Katie Boren in Paris, for example, we had around seven or eight days of photography. Usually, on these trips, we wake up well before the sunrise, get to the location early, and get our shoot done before people start showing up and starting their days. I prefer empty locations, and that means lots of early mornings. I typically try to keep us under the radar.
Phoblographer: How do you choose locations?
Dane Shitagi: We’ve shot everywhere from a polo horse ranch on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to beautiful rooftop space in Montmartre Paris. Recently, I was shooting a dance film at 4:00 in the morning on the NYC subway system.
It really just boils down to finding places that are interesting and trying to stay away from things that feel more mainstream. I also think about the limitations of the space and how they’ll affect the ballerina. For example, if there’s a soft surface like a beach available, that will limit our images to a limited number of jumps or other images that don’t require a firm footing.
In time, as the project has matured, I’m also been giving myself more and more negative space within my composition. I’m letting the environment breathe a little bit more. It’s all about that balance between the environment and the ballerina.
Phoblographer: You’ve worked on this project for more than 20 years now. What keeps you returning to ballet after all this time?
Dane Shitagi: In a sense, as a photographer, I think maybe I understand the philosophy that drives ballerinas. Their training requires a lot of repetition, and the same holds in photography. It’s hard work, and it takes time. I also appreciate that every dancer is different. There isn’t any “cookie-cutter” approach when it comes to photographing a specific ballerina. It’s all about building individual communication and trust, and I feel that my working relationships with ballerinas are earned because those in the ballet world don’t let outsiders in very easily. Once they respect you, you get to another level in the work.
Phoblographer: Do you have a favorite memory from the project?
Dane Shitagi: There are so many great memories. There have been so many shoots with so many ups and downs. There have been happy moments, and then there have been moments where we really had to push through. When you work on anything for so long, you come to kind of understand the ups and downs of it all. You invest your time, and you know eventually you’ll get a couple of shots that make everything worthwhile.
One of my favorite memories would be from a shoot I did in Richmond Park in London with a ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson, who is a Principal with The Royal Ballet. It’s a beautiful place that’s known for its deer population, so it’s not unusual to encounter these big bucks. We were actually doing a (rare) jump shot, and it was on this long grass, so we only did the jump maybe fifteen times.
The ground was soft and not typically ideal for ballet, so I remember this moment where Lauren kind of gave up on a particular jump attempt and we got this one awful series of images. After reviewing this failed attempt, we just had the biggest laugh right then and there. Lauren has since shared the photo a couple of times on her personal Instagram. We got great photos from that day too, of course, and I won’t share the “bad” photo here, but it was nice to have that moment to just laugh at ourselves and let go a little bit. We were able to make fun of ourselves. It was a very authentic moment.
Phoblographer: You have a massive following on social media. What’s the difference between experiencing these images on a screen and holding the book in your hands?
Dane Shitagi: I think I’d prefer people to look at the book, especially because people will mostly be on their tiny phone screens when encountering the images online. As I mentioned, I like to work with a lot of negative space, so in that sense, the work is best seen printed large, either in the book or on a wall.
Phoblographer: Have you ever taken a ballet class or tried dancing yourself?
Dane Shitagi: No, I leave it to the professionals! Also, ballet is one of those things where you have to have a head start very early on. Most professional ballerinas started at around five or six years old. It’s something that their bodies have cultivated over a lifetime.
Grab your copy of Ballerina Project here. Be sure to visit Dane Shitagi’s website for more, and follow along on Instagram at ballerinaproject_, on Twitter at @Ballerinaprjct, and on Facebook at @theballerinaproject.
Want to get your work featured? Here’s how to do it!