Norwegian: A whole new way to move

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By Astrid Olsson

Ingrid Bugge spent a year and a half with the Royal Danish Ballet to create photography series The Essence of Ballet. The results feel like nothing that’s gone before

For all that digital altering has revolutionised photography, Photoshop fireworks are only rarely credited with adding soul to pictures. Which is part of the reason why Ingrid Bugge’s The Essence of Ballet series is so special. In most ballet photography, you can appreciate the beautiful shapes created by the dancers, but it’s largely static; in Bugge’s photographs, you can almost feel the movement and emotion. With its surreal elements, the series feels like a game changer.

Bugge spent a year and a half with the Royal Danish Ballet from 2012, and her aim was “to capture the essence, the soul, the intensity of the ballet”. The Copenhagen photographer had little experience of the  »art form before the project, though she says, “I’ve always focused on movement and the human body. I’d photographed yogis and modern dancers before, but ballet dancers are the ultimate.”

She found herself hooked. “There’s this incredibly physical act, as if the dancers are going against gravity, but there’s also so much poetry and tenderness. I found myself sucked into this romantic, intense, beautiful world – it’s such a subtle, delicate language and it talks to your soul. I fell in love.”

Most of the shots were taken during final rehearsals, when Bugge would have greater freedom to shoot around the theatre. Still, she says, “I was there on the theatre’s conditions and I couldn’t plan. I’d have to ask permission to be in certain places. During the shooting it was very instinctive – a lot of it was based on gut feelings, and it didn’t feel like a technical job.”

Yet many of the final images are immensely technical. Her first shot, which she showed to artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe to earn her permanent residency, is a panoramic composite of several images taken during a 2012 performance of A Folk Tale, by the famously romantic 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville. Dancers merge into the background in a swirl of fabrics, somewhere between reality and fantasy. “It’s this strange contrast between taking the photos, when all I’m doing is ‘being’, and then this quite dense final technique”

The central idea behind much of the work is movement. In a composite image of more than 50 photos of 2012’s La Bayadére, – with principal dancer Gudrun Bojesen in the foreground – the dancers’ legs are blurred and overlaid so that they look like they’re shaking. “I realised early on as a photographer that I like movement. My pictures worked if I made people move a lot. I like the freedom and unpredictability; it means my job is to understand, not predict.”

The Essence of Ballet is the result of more than 35,000 pictures taken over 18 months, plus an extra year of post-production. It has been made into a coffee table book; an iBook for iPad; and an exhibition in Silkeborg, central Denmark, where many of the images are huge – one panorama is 6m x 1.5m while one portrait is 1.4m x 2.4m, with the dancers rendered almost to scale. On the cover of the book is a striking image of Gudrun Bojesen staring up to the gods in The Lady of the Camellias, the tragic love story of a woman dying of tuberculosis. Bugge added parts of dresses to create a gauzy, otherworldly fabric “to emphasise turbulence, movement, beauty”.

Bugge says she’s inspired by classical painters – there are clear echoes of da Vinci – and the iPad iBook that accompanies the series is subtitled “Painting with My Camera”. In a video explaining the project, she says she started out following the narrative of the ballets, but became more interested in creating scenes that encapsulated the spirit of the performance. “The process is technical,” she says, “but the impact should be emotional”.