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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."
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
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