By Judith Mackrell
The Danish photographer’s interactive ibook The Essence of Ballet showcases the possibilities of the digital future of dance photography
Ghostly movement … Romeo and Juliet, 2013. Photograph: Ingrid Bugge
Back in the 1980s, a new generation of dance photographers began to reinvent their craft, responding to the experimental energies of the choreographers around them with images that aimed to capture the wit of the dance work rather than ogle the beauty of a dancing body. Typical of the era was this surreal image by Chris Nash, a publicity shot for the Cholmondeleys in which the head of dancer Teresa Barker was transposed on to her giant dancing hand.
But for all their lively subversiveness, the photographs of Nash and his contemporaries were tied to the physical formats of the past – to prints and posters and books. By contrast, the work of the Danish photographer Ingrid Bugge offers a glimpse into the possibilities of the digital future.
Bugge, who came to dance as an outsider, spent nearly two years in residency with the Royal Danish Ballet. Her main project was to capture her impressions of their work through a series of single artworks, many of them photographic collages or manipulated images. These have been collected within Bugge’s print book The Essence of Ballet. But they’ve been given an alternative life in a complementary interactive ibook in which Bugge both records and re-enacts aspects of her working process.
La Sylphide. Photograph: Ingrid Bugge
As this video reveals, Bugge brings a fascinating digitalised craft to her work. Analysing the image she created from John Neumeier’s ballet Lady of the Camellias, Bugge describes how she put extra layers of fabric around the dancer to create an effect of the dying Marguerite still glowing with love, yet poised to transcend her earthly life. It’s an image saturated with poetry: those layered skirts also have the effect of enfolding Marguerite like the petals of her trademark flower. And viewed on the backlit screen of an ipad or tablet, it’s even more alive than in printed reproduction.
More fascinating still are the different kinds of image sequencing that Bugge is able to feature in the ibook. One format she uses is like an update of the old cartoon flip book. Three conventionally static dance images are laid out on a page (a trio that possibly comes from a Balanchine ballet, a single man with a stretched torso and angled arms, Juliet on her balcony, her hands lifted to her face). Each image can be clicked to reveal the multiple images that Bugge shot as the dancers were actually moving. Flashing in quick succession, these sequenced images combine the impact of each crisply isolated moment with the live dynamic of the dancing. As Juliet spreads out her arms, her ecstatic embrace of the air is intensified frame by frame. Even more effective is the male dancer, whose pose turns out to be part of an explosively phrased jump. As her subject soars into the air and then falls back into a low crouch, Bugge’s sequencing captures both the purity and the visceral punch of the phrase.
While those sequences move in one dimension, others create a mesmerising illusion of depth. Again they start with a conventional still, of Romeo and Juliet in duet together or Nikiya dancing the Scarf Duet in La Bayadere. But when that still is clicked, the screen starts to fill with other ghostly images taken from other moments in the production. Romeo and Juliet are framed by moments that recall past moments in their story and the destiny that awaits them. Nikiya is slowly surrounded by dozens of sister shades, a hallucinatory crowd of figures in white tutus.
It’s the fact that we can see the slow evolution of these collages, their constituent images only gradually coming into focus, that makes these sequences so beguiling. When we watch dance live, it’s always with a jostle, a swirl of impressions. We’re focused on the present moment, but that moment comes charged with the memories of what’s preceded it, and the expectation of what’s to come. Bugge’s work with the Royal Danish Ballet shows her to be a marvellous recorder of dancers, their bodies, their working lives, their on stage magic. But in these sequencing techniques she does something else, which is to capture the essence of what it’s like to observe dance too.