Kickstarting A New Kind of Dance Photography

with Jesús Chapa-Malacara

1555321_693934137323428_972362407_nADC Member Jesús Chapa-Malacara is a commercial photographer with grand plans.

After studying photography at Yale, he became a contemporary ballet dancer in New York City, but he never lost interest in the camera. Following a period of artistic exploration, Jesús returned to the lens to bring together his two passions. The result is Esprit de Corps, an experimental series that captures dancers in their full range of movement through a radically new lighting technique, huge production spaces, and a lot of hard work. It’s a new frontier for dance photography, a genre that many people, including Jesús, thought had reached the limits of innovation.

But he doesn’t want to stop there. In order to realize the amazing potential of this body of work and produce 30 more large-scale photographs of ballet and break dancers, Jesús has started a Kickstarter campaign which has until February 14th, 2014 to raise $16,000 to fund the next phase of the project.

With 31 days to go, he gave us some inside information on what it takes to make this vision a reality.

ADC: How did this idea originate?

Jesús Chapa-Malacara: I came up with the concept for the original ballet series Esprit de Corps when I was working primarily as a child portraitist in Brooklyn.  It was going ok, but it wasn’t terribly fulfilling artistically, I was pretty much always broke, and I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do in the long term.

Working on a mind-map one day, the concept for the lighting framework of Esprit de Corps came to me.  I wasn’t certain it would work but I thought, “But if it did, how cool would that be?” I thought at first I would record the elemental movements of any number of sports, which I’d still like to do. Originally, I tried the idea with a runner at a track in Williamsburg; it didn’t allow for enough light control — but it became clear it would work.  That was incredibly exciting.

ADC: Does working with performing artists and having been one yourself attune you differently as a visual artist?

Jesús: I have found as I’ve worked with dancers and athletes that I do bring something that a lot of other dance and sports photographers don’t.  It does change the dynamic. Being a good photographer is so often actually about being a good director. Not only is there an understanding of the movement, there’s an understanding of what the person physically is going through to get what I’m asking of them.  There’s an understanding of what they’re capable of and how hard I can push them, and when I need to pull back.  Dancers and athletes are for the purposes of a photo shoot, “models.”  But they’re not just models.  They get tired, they get sore, they need someone who understands what’s a completely absurd request and what’s demanding but reasonable.  Every time a dancer pushes her or his body to the extreme the profession asks them to, he or she risks injury and the end of a career!  The same goes for my shoots.  And I understand that, because I’ve been there.  Being injured as a dancer is like being fired and being told you may never be able to hold down a job again.  It’s horrifying.

ADC: Anyone can see that these large-scale photos are beautiful and technically impressive, but are there any formal aspects to them that might not be immediately obvious to the untrained eye?

Jesús: Each of the ballet photos constitutes one entire movement or phrase in the ballet language.  Each contains every little movement, beginning to end, that it takes to execute that “word” in ballet, all the little details professional dancers spend so much time perfecting.  So it’s not only a photographic capture, it’s also a reference.  The long-term project for Esprit de Corps, the ballet series, is to turn it into a visual compendium of the ballet lexicon.  One thing I’ve really enjoyed hearing about the photos is how many dancers have said, “It would have been so great to have something like this when I was a young dancer.”

The second thing that people not familiar with photography might not realize is that, though I certainly didn’t invent long exposure photography, the series represents something new in what might be considered old-school photography.  The whole concept, the context and the execution — the visual representation alongside the academic study aspect of it — are things that have never really been done in this visual way.

I really love photography for both its possibilities and its limitations. The hyper digitally-manipulated era we’re in is begging us to stretch the limits of actual photography further, and I think these photos do that.

ADC: Why is it important to you to expand the project in this monumental way?

Jesús: I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done with this project.  Space is by far the biggest consideration and we essentially need to rent out black box theatres that have sprung floors–there are only a few in New York that would fit the specs needed.  Space is also by far the most expensive of considerations, nearly always, in New York.  The photos already produced have done a great job with the resources we’ve had, but, for example, they don’t allow for much lateral movement.

The opportunity to use bigger spaces, to let the dancers really let go, to follow a movement across 50 feet of horizontal space, to shoot from above — that would really elevate the project to the next level.  The ideas for this next level are hugely more expansive. The aim of this project is to create a collection of work that is timeless, that is classic, that is monumental. No one is getting rich here, as ambitious as this all may seem.  It’s just the cost of doing work in New York.  I hope I can end up paying myself enough to eat while I’m doing all this!