“Jerome Robbins gave me my life,” Sondra Lee said as she casually name-dropped one of the most diverse and influential choreographers of the 20th century.
Lee isn’t labeled an actress or a dancer: she’s a performer and has done it all from film to Broadway, to international opera houses, to dancing on the traditional stage – and her portrait is the grand finale of Mark Mann’s latest book Movement at the Still Point.
She explained: “That’s what’s in that photograph. That photograph is a gift from everyone I’ve known and Mark Mann caught that.”
Despite bringing several changes of wardrobe, Mann asked Lee to wear what she arrived in, put on some music, and asked her to move.
Lee’s dance portrait appears simple. To the naked eye, she may seem to be posing in a moment of rest as she stands on two feet, but she performs with an air of pride: a hip thrown slightly askew, a cheerful épaulement of her chin angles to the sky, hands thrown to the side with emotion and pizzaz.
Lain out on the spread beside her dance photo, Lee’s portrait is buzzing with personality. She winks cheekily at the camera, carrying an aura of youth, wisdom, and – what Lee said, most importantly – survival.
Lee explained it isn’t just that singular moment Mann captured for the book; it was her entire career leading up to these moments captured on camera.
Movement at the Still Point diverts from a traditional idea of a dance photography book: the dance photographs capture stillness or simpleness sometimes more than motion, and it’s as much a portrait study as one of dance.
As The Ballet Herald had the opportunity to speak with renowned celebrity photographer Mark Mann, Broadway legend Sondra Lee, and Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre Calvin Royal III about the process behind the book, it seemed Movement at the Still Point is more concerned about expressing who the dancer is an artist and less about the art form.
Mann explained the instant he began Movement at the Still Point he knew he wanted the portraits to have an equal impact as the dance photographs.
However, Mann’s secret to capturing the unique, singular moment is anything but simple. Mann shared his years of expertise in taking portraits of the likes of Jennifer Anniston, Barack Obama, Jane Fonda, and countless other cultural icons: the lighting comes down to a science.
Now, engaging with these dancers, Mann said he marveled at the way he witnessed the dancers turn on and off their performance for the camera.
Calvin Royal III is also featured in Mann’s collection. His portrait is stoic, yet hopeful, a line of light striking a diagonal curve across his angled face that aesthetically compliments the perfect C-curve shape from his fingers to his toes in a sublime tendu croisé derriere in the dance photograph on the page opposite.
Even though Royal’s shoot with Mann was nearly two years ago now – the ambitious project has taken over three years to shoot and produce – he recalls:
“I remember the energy on set. It was just me, him, the camera, and his two assistants – and I remember the conversation that we had, especially during the portrait that was up close.”
“[Mann] was trying to capture those moments in between. The shot itself wasn’t necessarily the one where you knew it was coming. He would tell a joke or make a face that would make me laugh. And it was those in-between moments of recovery that he would capture and I think those are the ones that were really telling of the moment.”
Mann commented on his own process:
“All I want to do is have a conversation and all I want to do is talk to you like another human being put us on the same level. That means maybe bringing them down and me coming up. Sometimes I’m coming up here, sometimes they’re going down to me, but putting you on the same level as me.”
I’m not trying to pretend I’m a movie star, but you know what? I am a human being. I had breakfast. ‘So, what did you have for breakfast today? Did you have breakfast? I can still see it on your teeth.’”
Lee expressed she does not even recall the moment Mann took her portrait that was selected for the book, as she was so absorbed in the conversation of the moment.
She remarked, “I love his method. I think it’s an attribute of a very experienced portrait photographer. He says he’s the ringmaster of the portraits; he was in control of the portrait. He goes much deeper. Much deeper. But the dance photos, that was the dancers.”
On the receiving end of the lens for the dance photographs, Mann commented, “I had to allow the performance to happen and capture it instead of making the performance happen by going… you know, by doing the talking and the schmoozing and the laughing. I wasn’t performing. They were performing and that was a big difference for me.”
Before entering Mann’s warehouse and natural-light-filled studio space specifically designated for this book, Royal had a few expectations about working with a celebrity photographer with such a recognizable portfolio.
Royal expressed, “What surprised me [about working with Mann] and made me feel even more at ease was the fact that he was so easygoing, ready to get in there, ready to collaborate.
He was so open to hearing my voice, what it was that I wanted to bring out of the images, and as an artist, you long to be able to work side by side with someone, no matter how much they or I have accomplished in our respective fields, to be able to bring all of that experience together and create something that then will be part of something even larger.”
“The representation in the book is who we are as a dance community. We're so diverse. We're so individual. But we're also part of something that is just so incredible.”
Lee had a similar takeaway from being a part of such an inclusive project. “These photos are a spirit that unites us as a dance community. Mann’s book was needed – and you are a dancer no matter how young or old you are.”
Adding in wisdom from her legendary career, Lee concluded with a comment on her portrait: “You have to be tough. You have to be aspiring. You have to be kickin’ it off. And you know, you can’t kill me or dancers like me with a bat. I’m a survivor. I’m tough. And funny.
It’s all there in the photograph.”
Featured Photo of Mark Mann photographing Misty Copeland for Movement at the Still Point. Photo by Jacob Levy, edited by The Ballet Herald.
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