Nan Melville

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Melville’s Dance Moments

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

Nan Melville, whose dance photographs are published

in major newspapers and dance publications on three continents, likes

to watch dancers in performance. She works at night, in the back of

the theater, with a soundproofed camera and a very long lens.

"I don’t like doing studio shots of dancers. They’re self-conscious,

and I usually find their minds are on the camera, not on what they’re

doing," she says. "There’s a different mental state in the

studio than before a living audience, and I think the camera picks

that up. Even a studio jump is not so sure as the one in the theater."

Melville says her effort usually pays off. Especially "when you’ve

got a 9 a.m. deadline and you know the newspaper wants faces and feet."

Melville, whose exhibition of 50 photographs of dancers in action

is on exhibit at the Princeton Ballet School through May 15, will

join American Repertory Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre,

and Star-Ledger dance critic Robert Johnson for a panel discussion

on her work and the art dance photography moderated by Alice Greenwald-Ward.

The free panel takes place Sunday, March 14, at 5 p.m. at Princeton

Ballet School in the Princeton Shopping Center.

Melville’s dance photographs, spanning some 17 years, range from a

meditative image of Darcey Bussell in a London studio to Alicia Alonso

in performance at age 71, as well as performance shots of American

Repertory Ballet dancers. She also works from her collection of color

slides, making emulsion transfers from Polaroid film onto watercolor

paper, a technique that transforms the photographs into something

akin to a painting. Her goal is to "give the viewer something

of the essence or soul of the dance or dancer."

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Nan Melville

An affinity for ballet and theater comes naturally to Melville. The

daughter of a professional dancer, she grew up in Kimberley, South

Africa, a diamond-mining region in the center of the country, surrounded

by art and music. Her mother, Enid Jobson, the daughter of a Scots

expatriate, studied ballet in London and danced with the Sadlers Wells

company before returning to South Africa to teach. Although Melville,

her younger sister, and their cousins all studied dance briefly, she

never considered it professionally. "My mother discouraged us,"

she says, "as such a hard and sweaty life."

Melville earned her B.A. in English and drama at Rhodes University,

in Grahamstown, South Africa, and taught English and drama in Cape

Town for seven years before becoming a professional photographer.

"I suddenly woke up one morning and thought I’d like to be a dance

photographer," she says today, with a note of astonishment in

her voice. Visiting her sister in Pretoria, she was introduced to

an administrator from the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal

and soon became the organization’s house photographer. Since then

she has spent 12 years working as a freelancer in the U.S., but returns

to Cape Town for two months every year "to recuperate."

"The work’s very instinctive for me," she says. "I can’t

really analyze the qualities that I look for. I concentrate very hard

on the dance, and become very absorbed in the performance. I think

you’ve got to bring in that spontaneity and excitement. But instead

of `Wow,’ you press the shutter."

She tends to go with what she sees before her, rather than waiting

for something to happen. "Most of the time, I’m seeing dances

for the first time. But even when I’m on `Swan Lake,’ a ballet I’ve

shot hundreds of times, it’s new," she says. "You know what’s

going to happen, but there’s always a different slant. A moment that

works brilliantly for one company might not be the right moment for

another company."

Melville’s exhibition includes some images of South African tribal

dancers, an area she would like to document before the dance form

is lost. She has also photographed traditional dances in India and

ritual dances in Hong Kong. Yet the theater remains her natural habitat.

"Having started out as a professional photographing in the theater,"

she says "you don’t have to translate from sunlight. You don’t

know another world."

— Nicole Plett

Dance and Photography Panel, American Repertory Ballet,

Princeton Ballet School, 301 North Harrison Street, 609-921-7758.

Discussion with Nan Melville, Septime Webre, Robert Johnson,

Alice Greenwald-Ward. Free. Sunday, March 14, 5 p.m.

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