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Michael Slobodian - Dance Through a Lens

interview Jul 13, 2019
Photo: ‘Walking Mad’ / Ballet BC / Dancers of Ballet BC
~ Interview by Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Outreach Coordinator at Ballegro Player, Dancer at Arts Umbrella’s Graduate Program

Michael Slobodian - a name well-known across the dance community as a highly skilled and sought-after dance photographer. Michael began his professional career in dance photography in 1984 and has since worked for companies worldwide including Nederlands Dans Theatre, Ballet British Columbia, Northwest Dance Project, Arts Umbrella, Kidd Pivot, Mascall Dance, Springboard Dans Montreal, Nacho Duato, RUBBERBANDance Group, Marie Chouinard, and TU Dance, to name a few.  

I have had the great privilege of working with Michael in one-on-one shoots, in the studio, and onstage at Arts Umbrella and Springboard.  On top of travelling across the world to photograph for companies, he has also made the time to do a shoot with Ballegro - our V3 design is inspired by, and uses, one of Michael’s photos of Arts Umbrella alum, Simone Kingman, as our main brand image! Now, through Ballegro, having the chance to pick his brain about his craft has made me appreciate and understand what it is like to be on the other side of the camera lens.

What was it that drew you to photography, and more specifically dance photography?  

Quite honestly, I have to credit my mom! She bought me my initial camera to keep me busy and out of trouble! It became a social tool and was a way to meet people.  I have always believed that everybody has a good angle and I was always trying to take the nicest picture of somebody.

As for dance photography, I had a girlfriend early on in my career who was a dancer.  I started going to shows and hanging around backstage, and became fascinated with the idea of capturing movement.  I got close with the official photographer of Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, and during shows I would end up standing next to him in the wings, shadowing him.  At first I would take a series of shots and end up with not very many good photos. But I started to learn through osmosis - as I was told I had good timing!  As I continued to work beside him, the timing of our ‘clicks’ got closer and closer, and this was great validation that I was heading in the right direction! Once I got more comfortable with photographing live movement, I realized I was especially intrigued with capturing the beauty and emotion of live performance onstage.

After I met my wife/partner Gioconda Barbuto she became my mentor and advisor and I continued to learn about dance; she taught me what a ‘technically good’ dance photograph was and she was also my most enthusiastic supporter and critic.

Can you tell me more about all that you do with photography?

I started originally shooting fashion, which I was really keen on.  I was making headway with it in Montreal and travelled to Milan to further study, however it wasn’t completely calling to me, or I to it.  When I returned home, I was shooting for advertising companies, CD covers, portraits - pretty much everything other than food, and mostly revolving around people.

As for dance photography, I think my job as the photographer is not just to sit behind the camera and snap photos.  It is to collaborate with the dancer; to offer inspiration and ideas, to perhaps move the shoot in a different direction, or to propose a different feeling.  I hesitate to use the word ‘choreographer’, but I do have ideas to share and do not hesitate to jump up and offer my thoughts in a not-so-elegant demonstration of something I might envision the dancer doing!  I have never danced, but dance has given me a lot. It has given me a nice home, a purpose and helped me meet the most wonderful people and artists.

I know that you are based in Montréal, so what was it that brought you to Vancouver?

Artemis Gordon had commissioned Gioconda Barbuto, my partner, to work with the dancers at Arts Umbrella.  When Arty found out that I was a dance photographer, she had me come down as well. That was in 1999, and I have been photographing with Arts Umbrella ever since!  

So you started working with Arts Umbrella before Ballet BC?

Yes, much before. I began working with Ballet BC in 2009 at Emily Molnar’s invitation, and as well with Joe Laughlin and Crystal Pite in the past 3-4 years, which I am thrilled about! 

These are some very long partnerships you have continued to develop, especially here in Vancouver! It seems you have been with Arty (at Arts Umbrella) and Emily Molnar (at Ballet BC) almost since the beginning of their times as Artistic Directors of their programs.  How is it working with a company over many years?

It is very rewarding for me to get to work with a company over many years, as it enables us to grow and share so much history together! Being aware of the artistic director’s vision and trying to compliment that with my work is a rare opportunity. I think besides Arts Umbrella and Ballet BC, my longest standing partnership was with Nacho Duato’s Compania Nacional de Danza…I had been working for him for 15 years!

What is your favourite kind of dance shot to capture?

Live, onstage action!  These are the most challenging and the most satisfying for me.  Not only do you have the challenges of lighting, camera settings and movement, you also have the incredible added layer of the artistry.  Sometimes you are in a Black Box theatre, with a dimly lit stage and the dancers in all black, which is already tricky in its technicalities. Then you add a group of agile dancers into the mix, and the fun is just beginning!

Can you share with us your secrets about how to capture a dancer at the 'peak' of their jump or the fullest of their movement? How can you predict the future and anticipate what a dancer will do? What are your tactics when taking shots of a live show/performance?

Instinct.  ...There is no secret.  You just need to have your eye on the dancer, your finger on the trigger, follow them, and commit.  I don’t have my camera on ‘motor drive’. I wait for the exact moment, and if I miss it, I miss it…

That is very admirable and bold! Do you have any tactics when taking shots of the ‘live, onstage action’ you love?

My tactics for the onstage shoots are to be physically close to the stage (versus zooming in with the camera lens), looking for different angles, and following dancers - sometimes physically running across to the other side of the stage.  I often find myself sweating, becoming physically and emotionally invested in what the dancers are performing, and strangely connected with them - almost feeling like I am moving with them! 

In order to follow the dancers and work with them as intimately as I do, I can’t work with a tripod or a camera strap in my way.  My camera has to be free and mobile so I can turn it horizontally or vertically at any moment. I am off the leash! This ‘tactic’ of course leads to the potential of injury - I have fallen flat on my butt after tripping and crashed into seats….

I have had the amazing opportunity to work with you one-on-one in the studio, but for those who are seeking advice, what would you tell dancers going into a shoot? 

Bring your energy, bring your creativity. Just bring it!  Show up, have fun, collaborate!  It is a great opportunity for you to work with a photographer.  We are capturing a moment in time, which instantly becomes history.  So give the most that you can to each moment!

Yes, this does sound like the ‘in-studio’ Michael! It is very cool to have witnessed you in a shoot, and hear you talk about it after the fact - these really are the ideas you embody!  I know you love to suggest a dancer to jump whatever contorted position they have found themselves in, but other than this, what are the most common suggestions you make as you are standing behind the lens with a dancer, of any age?

Give me something.  Start the conversation.  I will collaborate with you and give you advice, but YOU have to bring me something to start with.  It’s like speed dating -LOL - I have to get to know you very quickly and we have to produce something, a high-quality image, in a very short amount of time!  But I have never had issues working with dancers...because they always are able to bring something original to the shoot!

What do you look for when choosing 'the' photo from a shoot? What does the 'ideal' dance image portray/express, in your eyes?

Emotion!  I look at an image and it has to speak to me, whether it is a portrait or a dance image.  

I think this is so true not just in dance photography, but also as an audience member in general.  You most likely will not remember the choreography of the repertoire, but more so the emotion, the essence, the energy the dancers leave on the floor!

Exactly! And I am in the business of capturing time, capturing this energy, recording history.  So when you go back and look at said photo 10 or more years from now, the emotion of that image should hopefully bring you right back to that moment.

Thank you, Michael, so much for your time and insight into your world on the other side of the camera lens! 

Here is a series of photos Michael has taken over the course of his many years of photographing dance:


Photos (in chronological order, left to right): Carmina Burana by Fernand Nault / Les Grands Ballet Canadiens / Company Dancers; Couple of Moments by Johan Inger / Dancer: Gioconda Barbuto; Adieux by Jean Pierre Perreault / Company Dancers; Compagnie FLAK / Company Dancers; Ginette Laurin / Personal shot; Solo Echo by Crystal Pite / Ballet BC / Company Dancers

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