A gaggle of girls cluster around me in the dimly-lit photo studio, waiting for my instructions. Nastya and Sasha have to leave early. “So how about you sit and I shoot you wearing your pointe shoes,” I say.
The two long-limbed young women in question pull out a fresh pair of satin pink pointe shoes apiece and sit against the white studio backdrop, shifting slightly as I reposition them. Their friends disappear down the corridor to a dressing room. One of them, Renata, is fixing everyone’s hair into impressively neat coiffures, embellishing them the accessories she deems best. Nastya and Sasha exchange knowing smiles, sharing a secret moment as only friends can. The Vaganova Ballet Academy, where they train, schools them in English, but Nastya and Sasha are reserved and sweetly quiet. Perhaps they are not as comfortable with the language as their friends are – Renata, Olga and Mary form a vivacious trio when they join us later.
(From left to right: Mary, Olga, Sasha, Nastya and Renata; wearing Cloud & Victory leotards, legging, tops and skirts for this shoot.)
I kneel down and start snapping away. I’m so pre-occupied with the work at hand that it doesn’t occur to me that I may well be photographing some of the future stars of classical dance; at least not until I’m finally in bed nursing a chocolate bar.
Even in the simple act of wearing pointe shoes, these young women convey a sense of elegance in their movements. Their training extends beyond merely technique. As Vaganova students, they perform regularly on the famed Mariinsky stage with the main company, and participate in various dance competitions within Russia. That experience is evident here as they shift easily and naturally into a series of classical poses, each movement infused with expressiveness.
As we experiment with different ideas, it’s clear that they are not merely technically-gifted dancers. They retain their individuality in their performances; from Renata, who oozes elegance down to her littlest finger, to Mary who comes alive when I ask her to try some of the contemporary movements she favours.
At the end of the day, though, they’re all young women – friends who have built a camaraderie with each other in the pressure cooker environment that is the Vaganova Academy. They take selfies and check their handphones between turns, and coo over the clothes, excited to hang out and have pictures taken of themselves looking their best. When we’re finally done for the night, they hover over a box of chocolate biscuits, giggling and munching away.
Amidst shots of them balancing en pointe or leaping in the air mid-jete, they flex their feet, make silly faces and pull each other in for hugs. “We must all take a picture together!” they say, pulling me in as well. I make sure to capture those moments along with the ones of them showcasing their enviable grace. Who they are as dancers is fascinating, but who they are as people is equally, endearingly so.
With thanks and love to Mary Puart, Renata Shakirova, Olga Makarova, Alexandra Popova and Anastasia Yaromenko.
Photos by Min, Cloud & Victory.