Some people go to the ballet. More recently, others bring the ballerinas to us, like on Instagram. "Why not?" Dane Shitagi says wryly about why he photographs ballerinas. "It's better than being a construction worker."
Brooklyn-based Shitagi is the creator of the Ballerina Project, a 15-year-old photo series that features ballerinas outside the studio, often on the streets of New York City. Here, their pretty pointe shoes are juxtaposed with the cityscape, and in this strangely beautiful new context, their forms, poses, and accomplishments seem uniquely artful. And somehow, far more striking than at the barre.
It's not hard to see why. He photographs only top ballerinas, from companies like the American Ballet Theater to the Dresden Semperopera Ballet. And in his photos they're dancing like you've never seen them before—in hightops and jeans in the West Village, en pointe on rugged cobblestones, or on the subway platform holding a perfect standing split. But it's not called the "New York City Project," it's the Ballerina Project.
"A lot of people assume the locations are the most important element," Shitagi says. "The most important is still the ballerina. The location is secondary. They're more fitting to the particular ballerina than the other way around."
Why photograph ballerinas?
His admiration for the art of ballet comes at a time when barre workouts can be found in every U.S. state, and Shitagi believes movies like Black Swan (not to mention that Free People ad) can make ballet look unrealistically easy and watered down.
"I only work with professional ballerinas or advanced students," he says. "They've dedicated their whole lives to ballet. It's a tragedy when people feel like they can put pointe shoes on any female and [call them] a ballerina." The project also helps dancers reach an audience outside their company city, and off the stage.
Shitagi moved to New York City from Honolulu, Hawaii, 20 years ago to pursue photography. While in Hawaii, he photographed ballerinas in waterfalls, and unofficially continued to do the same in New York City (except with cabs and concrete) until he founded the Ballerina Project in 1999 after the series organically garnered a following. Just a couple of years ago he began to shoot some projects digitally, but he prefers film.
Fashion entered the project naturally. And recently, he's collaborated with a number of high-profile brands like AG Jeans, Blackmilk Clothing, and VPL to document their clothing on the ballerinas.
"His last name, Shitagi, means underwear in Japanese, and is of course very rare," VPL president Kikka Hanazawa says. "We are Visible Panty Line, so we needed to find a way to work together. What we are exploring is that area where fashion and dance meet—we love working with dancers and a photographer who knows how to shoot them." The Ballerina Project shot VPL's resort lookbook, and VPL will be selling Shitagi's large-scale prints online this fall.
Isabella Boylston is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater in New York City. Her extensive work with the Ballerina Project includes a five-day swimwear shoot with Shitagi in Maui as a collaboration with designer (and wellness leader) Norma Kamali.
"I've done shoots with a lot of other fashion photographers, and it can be frustrating because they don't have a sense of line or timing," Boylston says. "Dane can really catch things at the right moment, and he is able to discern a good line from a bad one."
Boston Ballet dancer and Ballerina Project subject Kathryn Boren agrees.
"Dane has a very clear vision and is very particular about getting the perfect shot," explains Boren, who's done many shoots with Shitagi including a gorgeous series on a subway platform as trains blow past. "It is great to work with someone who knows exactly what they are looking for. He's also helped me to really grow artistically."
Despite being well known and appreciated in the ballet world, and the widespread support for the Ballerina Project, Shitagi still has some reservations about his mission.
"I’ve always felt that still photography is not the best medium to capture ballet," he admits. "Who in their right mind wants to create ballet photography? Ask me in six years why I'm doing this, I’ll probably have a better answer." By then his project's enormous following may have made it a moot point. —Jamie McKillop
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