George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky rehearsing Agon. Martha Swope Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Since her death last week, there have been many moving tributes to photographer Martha Swope. She was one of the great photo-journalists of live performance, documenting on and off-stage. She began, in her words, as an “adult dance student with a Brownie,” hanging out between classes at the School of American Ballet with that camera, famously made for amateurs. She was invited to come and shoot rehearsals for two iconic, even totemic, mid-century works – Agon and West Side Story. Her story progressed from those invitations to her long career as the New York Times photographer who preserved ballet, modern dance, and theater until she retired in the early 1990s. In her self-deprecating way, it became a story of luck, perseverance and recognizing that maybe it is better to change your path. But. that version of her story skips her unique eye for movement.
I had the pleasure of going through many of the 1,000,000 photographs, slides and negatives that she deposited at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for the 2013 exhibition Martha Swope In Rehearsal. It began with Agon and West Side Story and included her photographs for auditions, fittings, and working, tech and dress rehearsals. There are many stories hinted at within the photographs – rehearsal images tend to be very relaxed or very intent. For this shot of Agon (above), she showed choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky through the negative space made by Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. They are looking at other dancers who are not in the rehearsal, but not in the picture. It is a symmetrical pose so the dancers are equal. No race, no gender, no value of immigration — just moving bodies momentarily at rest. But the image held promise for the future.
I am also particularly fond of the shots of Jerome Robbins creating Dances at a Gathering in 1969, since Edward Villella and the other male dancers still have their vacation shaggy hairdos, which would not have been allowed on a ballet stage.
Dances at a Gathering rehearsal. Martha Swope Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
I will always remember her last shots of Martha Graham, demonstrating with gnarled, arthritic, but still articulate hands. The image that we selected for the cover showed shoes only from Sophisticated Ladies dancers – 10 pairs of black tap shoes, with the taps visible as elegant metallic curve, interrupted by Gregory Hines’ scuffed-up, ultra-casual pair.
But all of the images reflect her understanding of moving bodies. She saw energy, patterns and focus through her cameras because she could feel it in her dancer-trained body and eyes.