Visual Culture

The Photographer Who Immortalized the Movement of the New York City Ballet

Martha Swope, New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Who Cares?" with Patricia McBride and Jacques d'Amboise, 1970. © New York Public Library.

Martha Swope, New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Who Cares?" with Patricia McBride and Jacques d'Amboise, 1970. © New York Public Library.

In 1957, a young woman named Martha Swope walked into a studio at the New York City Ballet company, where her friend Jerome Robbins was taking classes to prepare for rehearsals of his new show, West Side Story. Swope—a lanky girl of 5’9” with long arms and slender fingers—was a student at the adjoining School of American Ballet, and had befriended him during her studies. Robbins, who was also an amateur photographer, noticed that Swope often photographed her teachers and shared his passion for the medium. He invited her to use his darkroom, and then asked her to take some informal shots of rehearsals. West Side Story was a smash hit, and one of Swope’s photographs ended up in Time magazine. But she was still set on becoming a professional dancer. Then, one day—“mid-plié,” as Swope would later recall to dance critic Francis Mason—Lincoln Kirstein, who co-founded the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, walked into her class and offered her a job as the company’s official photographer.
Swope lived in the dance studio for the rest of her career, but not as a dancer. In addition to her photographs for the New York City Ballet, she also shot Broadway productions of Annie and the first run of Cats. She was in the studio when choreographers like John Taras and Merce Cunningham were creating experimental, modern ballets alongside Arthur Mitchell—New York City Ballet’s first African-American dancer. But she also had unfettered access to Balanchine, arguably ballet’s most legendary and influential choreographer, in his prime. By the time Swope began photographing the company full-time, Balanchine was in the midst of choreographing some of his most notable works: Agon in 1957, Stars and Stripes in 1958, and later Harlequinade and Jewels in the mid-1960s.
Swope viewed Balanchine and his muses—among them Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, and Jacques d’Amboise—with intimacy and tenderness. The genius technique and style of Farrell and Balanchine, especially when she danced under his tutelage, often softens into vulnerability through her lens. While audiences enjoy the near-spiritual experience of watching humans transform into divine forms, Swope saw their fragile act of creation unfold in the studio. When they perform, we aren’t meant to see the dancers as one of us; they are supposed to transcend the earthly realm. Perhaps unwittingly, she betrayed to the viewer an often ignored and yet obvious truth about ballet: Achieving physical perfection is crushing, difficult work.
Her lens captured the dancers’ focused faces, staring hard at Balanchine while mimicking uncanny contortions; to regular people, their abilities are nothing short of magic. In fact, Swope had a dancer’s mind, which gave her the ability to click the shutter at the precise moment of fluidity and action. Yet her body of work, which she donated to the New York Public Library in 2010 (she passed away in 2017, at 88 years old), is much more than just elegant photos of dancers performing difficult moves; she saw them at the height of their talent, and used her camera not as an opportunity to capture another example of perfection, but to make them accessible, refreshingly human. Her lens dispensed with the typical self-important snobbery often associated with ballet; the resulting photographs capture moments of silliness, frustration, and joy.
This mindset toward photographing ballet was especially important in a field that is dominated by women, but their performances crafted by male choreographers and composers. The ballerina is viewed as a vessel, translating the vision of a man, possessed by the spirit of ballet. Swope saw these women differently. She stripped away fantasies about dancers and focused on the ballerina as an artist and an athlete, not an object. Yet her photographs do capture many awe-inspiring moments simply because the ballerina is capable of extraordinary physical feats. Swope’s photos could see both the incredible talent and the person behind it.
Whether she intended it or not, Swope’s photographs helped lift the veil over ballet without taking away any of the wonder that watching it provokes. The little window that she carved into New York City Ballet’s hallowed studios remains a necessary view of the artistic process of creation, but perhaps more importantly, it gives the ballerina a break from living on a pedestal on high. In Swope’s photographs, ballerinas come back to earth, where they belong.
Elisabeth Sherman