Photography exhibit captures backstage action

Photography exhibit captures backstage action

September 30, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

There is always action.

Before lights. Before camera.


Before the curtain rises.


In the wings. Applying makeup. Hurriedly shedding leg warmers before an entrance.


It never stops. Not in the shadow of the stage. Not in quiet moments of intense concentration. Not in a state of pre-performance jitters.


It's this real life, pre-performance action that captured the imagination, and camera lens, of photographer Michele Wambaugh.

"I really liked the juxtaposition of the person being themselves backstage, yet they have all of their make-up on," says Wambaugh. "It was much more interesting to turn the camera on what was going on behind the scenes."

We are accustomed to crisp perfection, of pretty people full of grace and beauty effortlessly floating across the stage.

Then Wambaugh came along, somewhat as Toulouse-Lautrec did with paint on canvas in the 19th century, pulling back the curtain to unveil the humanity behind performing arts.

In "Exposed: The Performer Backstage," the Houston-based photographer has assembled 40 images taken since 1979 with ballet companies around the world. Through October, visitors to the Bowman Gallery in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts can step into a vibrant world of preparation, intensity and fun.

"I think it's sort of like I really like revealing the real person but all dressed up," Wambaugh says. "Yet the person is not all aligned, on. They're off; they're being themselves. Their faces are somewhere else, they're sort of concentrating on what's coming up soon but they're not on stage yet so they don't have that on-stage persona. They're real."

Walking around the Bowman Gallery, where Wambaugh's photography graces the walls through Oct. 27, Jean Woods, director of the museum, marvels at images imbued with a treasure trove of detail for the appreciative eye.

She lingers at "Purple Flower," taken during a San Francisco Ballet production of "The Nutcracker." Against a mellow beige background, a lone ballerina is on tip-toes in a vibrant purple costume that cascades to mid-calf in a shimmering blast of color.

In one of Woods' favorites in the exhibit, shadows on the floor and patterns on a backdrop all flow in sync toward the dancer.

"She's just waiting in the wings to go on, but it's just a gorgeous photograph. ... The composition is wonderful," Woods says, pointing to a spot two or three feet behind the ballerina. "If she had been back here it wouldn't have been as effective."

The memory of many shoots are so palpable, Wambaugh can close her eyes and remember many of the experiences that led to "Exposed."

She has been a fly on the wall with companies from London to Atlanta, Hyderabad, India, to Boston, an artist silently waiting for the right moment to cast her net with a swift 'click' from the shadows.

"It's a very fleeting art," Wambaugh says. "And when I'm shooting backstage, it's almost as if I'm a hunter and I'm hunting for the pools of light where performers will step and reveal themselves."

Not one to unleash a flurry of exposures in the hope of capturing something, anything, Wambaugh embraced the guerilla-like atmosphere that settled on the project.

Negotiating with gun shy ballet companies wary of an unflattering depiction, the photographer had to convince companies her aim was not to expose the seamier sides of a production, just the nobler pursuits.

So, dressed as a theater technician in black from head to toe (preventing the audience from catching an inadvertant glimpse of her), Wambaugh often picked a side of the stage and waited for action to unfold at dress rehearsals or select performances.

What unfolds on the Bowman's walls is a portrait of ballet that humanizes performers by showing they have a sense of humor, need to tie their shoes or wear a sweatshirt to keep warm.

Between May and July 2001, "Exposed" was featured at The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. Linda Hardberger, curator/director of The Tobin Foundation for Theatre Arts in the Texas city, curated the show, attracted to Wambaugh's work because it brings to life an art form that for most viewers doesn't spring to life until dancers cross the stage.

"The transformation of a human being into a performer and what that entailed, that was what fascinated me," Hardberger says. "Theater is magical, so you're able to see both sides. You're able to see how the magic is put together and then there is some of the magic itself."

Despite the enjoyment derived from assembling the backstage series, Wambaugh has moved on to her next project, assembling photographs of East Indian women. Street photography juxtaposed with posed shots in America and Europe. In January, she will return to India to photograph tribal women and, hopefully, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

But if the opportunity to return backstage resurfaces, she will embrace it. There are several troupes she wants to revisit; others, the Miami ballet company or any of the Russian ballets, she has not photographed.

Some people hear music from "The Nutcracker" and think of Christmas, of watching the holiday classic unfold at a favorite theater.

Not Wambaugh.

The act of capturing quiet moments of meditation in a few fleeting seconds before the performer bursts upon the stage easily outweighs any other consideration.

"She wasn't imposing herself on the actors. She was behind the scenes documenting this in an artistic way without breaking the concentration of these people," Hardberger says, mentioning one particular image of a dancer preparing to take the stage. "You can see her whole anxiety. You've watched these people get ready to go on stage and there's this one moment that you're totally engrossed in what you're about to do and (Wambaugh) captured it."

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