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THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: The agony and ecstasy of a ballet dancer

Western Tour images by Aleksandar Antonijevic of the National Ballet of Canada.

By Paul Gessell

The National Ballet of Canada has moved on, after three nights of performing The Seagull at the National Arts Centre. But highly personal mementos, some of them thought-provoking, even disturbing, have been left behind.

Aleksandar Antonijevic is one of the stars of The Seagull, a work inspired by the Anton Chekhov play of the same name. Antonijevic is also an accomplished photographer with several exhibitions listed in his resume.

This dancer-photographer has compiled a portfolio of dramatic images of ballet dancers at work, often intense gruelling work. An exhibition of those images, titled Feet and Mirrors, remains in the foyer outside the NAC’s Southam Hall until April 29. Some of the photographs are simply pretty pictures. Others tell a story not quite so pretty.

“My visual language and understanding of my subject – the human body– has been formed over my 25-year career as a professional dancer,” says Antonijevic. “Having been observed, criticized, appreciated, judged, and celebrated, I find myself grappling with a sense of isolation and solitude, in striking contrast to the very public life I live. This is what I explore in my photography.”

Candids by Aleksandar Antonijevic of the National Ballet of Canada.

Few outsiders really understand the lives of dancers, says Antonijevic. The photograph exhibition is meant “to reveal the dichotomy between the perception of dancers’ physical lives as beautiful and glamorous and the rigorous, often relentless, physical and mental demands that is life behind the scenes.”

Consider the photograph titled “Greta, Other Dances.” A slender ballerina is bent forward double, her feet both pointed outward to create a continuous 180-degree line on the floor. We can’t see her face but her pose appears painfully forced, like some prisoner being tortured with stress positions at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. How many years of practice and stretching and concentration did it take to accomplish that pose?

Another image is called Sonia. We see a nude woman from the back. She is sitting in a dressing room applying make-up for a performance. Her body is shockingly thin. Yet she does not look frail. Instead, she is fearsome and tightly wound, ready to spring like a panther when called to the stage. She has turned her body into a powerful, compact machine. But, at what cost, one can’t help but wonder.

The image that seems to provoke the most conversation among visitors to the exhibition shows four female dancers dressed in silly flower costumes for a performance of Alice in Wonderland. The four women stand in a line. Each wears a different expression. One looks angry, another embarrassed, another quizzical, another bored.

Crowds forming around that photograph inevitably try to interpret the dancers’ varied emotions and to determine what exactly is going on in the picture. Is someone off-camera shouting instructions? Criticisms, perhaps? It’s a puzzling shot. It’s not a happy scene. Playing a flower is, apparently, not the easiest job in the dance world.

FEET AND MIRRORS: Backstage photographs by Aleksandar Antonijevic continues at the NAC until April 29. Free admission.

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