Every NYC Dance Project image feels like a glimpse into something greater: a dance that's happening behind a curtain, in a private moment. Take, for example, one of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer Céline Cassone's photos, a commanding shot of her on pointe in passé, her fiery red hair flung upward over her face. Or, the image of Misty Copeland that perfectly portrays both her incredible strength and her ineffable grace. NYC Dance Project's photographers have taken powerful photos of dozens of famous subjects. But what inspires their iconic images? And how do you capture such stunning shots?
Former dancer Deborah Ory and her husband, Ken Browar, know the secret. The couple started NYC Dance Project with the goal of creating unique portraits of members of the dance community. Their photographic collaboration has since gone viral, first as a blog and Instagram account, and now as a new book, The Art of Movement, out last month. But it's Ory's dance experience that sets apart their dynamic, dreamy photographs; every dancer wishes to be seen through her favorable eye. The project has spanned more than three years and its impressive roster of subjects includes more than 100 professional dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Royal Danish Ballet, The Royal Ballet and many more.
Rooted in Modern
Ory first started taking ballet classes as a child in Ann Arbor, MI, but didn't intend to become a dancer—until she saw the Martha Graham Dance Company perform as a teenager. “Tears were streaming down my face," she says. “I thought it was the most moving and beautiful thing I'd ever seen." Former Martha Graham principal Peter Sparling was running the dance program at the University of Michigan at the time, and he allowed Ory to take classes with the dance majors while she was still in high school. She continued to study with him and eventually received her bachelor's degree in dance at University of Michigan. During college, she spent a year at the London Contemporary Dance School and attended summer intensives with Twyla Tharp and at the Limón Dance Company.
A New Passion Is Born
While studying with Sparling in college, Ory sustained an injury before the spring semester of her freshman year. A few days before classes started, she noticed a brand-new camera sitting on her parents' kitchen table. "I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to take photos," she says. "After enrolling in a photography class, I photographed all the rehearsals and performances that I was supposed to be in that semester while injured." Sparling was supportive of Ory's photography work, and was one of her very first subjects.
Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer Céline Cassone (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
When the time came to audition for professional companies, Ory felt intimidated. “Friends would come back with stories of hundreds of dancers lined up for a few openings in a company," she says. She admits that being opinionated about exactly what type of company she wanted to dance with may have also gotten in her way. “I now regret not having given it a try," she says.
After college, Ory moved to NYC and took a one-year course at the International Center of Photography. “Learning photography is very different than dance—there's no 'correct' way of making a photo like there's 'correct' form in dance technique," she says. She still had a lot to learn, though. At the time photography wasn't digital, so she studied how to develop film and print photos, in addition to mastering the art of lighting.
As with dance, there were obstacles. Most photographers hone their craft as photo assistants. “That was difficult for me, as a small woman," she says. “Assistants have to carry heavy lighting equipment, so most photographers prefer male assistants." She ended up working at magazines like House & Garden and Mirabella as a photo editor, where she was able to see photography from a different perspective. “I learned other aspects of the business. Styling clothing, producing photo shoots, finding locations, casting, doing budgets and much more—all of this has been invaluable for me now with NYC Dance Project."
A Business Blooms
Years after Ory and fashion photographer Browar got married, they decided they wanted to work on a photography project together. At the same time, their daughters had begun taking classes at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. “I would sit outside the classroom and hear the teachers giving the combinations and listen to the familiar music," Ory says. “My muscles were twitching, and I realized how much I missed dancing. I wanted some way to have it back in my life."
The critical moment came when Ory's daughter, Sarah, wanted her bedroom redecorated for her 12th birthday. “She asked for ballet photographs of her favorite dancers, the current stars of ABT," Ory remembers. But Ory was surprised that it was difficult to find many photos of these famous dancers. Her husband suggested that they simply try to shoot them themselves. The first dancer to agree was Daniil Simkin. He posted the images to his popular social media pages, and that led to work with other top dancers and choreographers in the industry.
American Ballet Theatre's Gillian Murphy (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
Ory fully credits her dance background with making her a better dance photographer. “The sense of timing you have after having been a dancer is very helpful," she says. “When I work, I feel like a choreographer, trying not to just get an impressive pose, but also to create movement in a still image."
Ory's story has come full circle. The Martha Graham Dance Company brought her to tears with inspiration as a teenager, and now its dancers are some of her biggest supporters and most enthusiastic subjects. Recently, MGDC artistic director Janet Eilber pointed out to Ory how lucky she is to work with such incredible dancers from all over the world. “I agree with her," Ory says. “It's unlikely as a dancer that I would've had these experiences."