Stepping Off Stage and Behind the Lens, Baryshnikov Unveils His Third Act: Photographer

Mikhail Baryshnikov is one of ballet’s most famous living names—perhaps one of the best who ever lived. To some, especially fans of the TV series Sex and the City, he’s just as well known for his work as an actor. And now, he is garnering acclaim for his third act in his creative pas de trois: photographer. 

Dancing Away,” which runs through January at London’s Contini Art UK, is Baryshnikov’s first U.K. exhibition of photography, but it’s hardly his first foray into the medium. The dancer began to explore photography in the 1980s, using a 35 millimeter camera as an outlet to document his circle and his travels, picking up tips from friends like photographers Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn, along the way. 

In art, there is often tension between the ephemeral nature of performance and the permanence of the art object—at the very least, a struggle to document movement in a way that transcends time. As a photographer, Baryshnikov avoided turning his lens on the world of dance for two decades, until he began to delve into the work of Alexey Brodovitch and Paul Himmel, photographers who managed to capture the energy of ballet through blurred compositions that turned the body into lyrical abstractions. 

In his photography, Baryshnikov takes a similar approach and imbues it with vibrant color. He uses long exposures so that the body begins to dissolve but never disappears or becomes unrecognizable. Each image combines movement and stasis, recognizable human shapes and amorphous action. All forms of dance are fodder for his camera, which he has turned toward everyone from prima ballerinas to street performers at Brazil’s carnival. 

With the dual perspective of an artist and connoisseur, Baryshnikov discovers his own version of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment. “I wanted the audience to see, to be able to imagine, the movement before and after, not just the frozen moment,” Baryshnikov has said. And so he takes “thousands of images,” carefully and slowly sorting through them until he finds the final image among the many. “My eye catches it and my heart stops.”

Dancing Away” is on view at Contini Art UK, London, Nov. 29, 2014 – Jan. 31, 2015.

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