Rick Guest’s stunningly beautiful photographs of Edward Watson vividly illustrate the impact on twenty-first century dance aesthetics of our renewed interest in the male body. On Friday night, in a conversation expertly chaired by dance critic Sarah Crompton as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Friday Lates talks series, Guest described how he first came to photograph Watson as the result of a commission for The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine. He was initially taken aback by how slight Watson seemed in rather flat light, then a sudden shaft illuminated Watson’s face, giving him the photograph he needed, and Watson the impetus to project his personality in response to the camera.

Guest is an excellent raconteur, and his account of the time he photographed Watson as the White Rabbit, in a role and costume that he clearly disliked, was hilarious; the resulting photograph brilliantly captures an air of grumpiness, which Watson apparently shed as soon as he climbed out of the costume. There was certainly absolutely nothing grumpy about Watson on Friday: strikingly dressed from throat to toe in black, he was friendly, open and engaging. Speaking of his career, he remarked that the fact that he did not look like other male dancers had been something of a disadvantage at first, but Monica Mason (who had herself been a somewhat atypical dancer) was open to casting him in roles, such as Rudolf in Mayerling, that were associated with dancers with very different physiques. Watson paid particular tribute to the experience he gained partnering Leanne Benjamin, but it was working with Wayne McGregor, he said, that enabled him to accept himself as a dancer simply as he is. The discussion drew out Watson’s strongly collaborative approach, whether he is in the ballet or the photographic studio, and Guest’s photographs reveal Watson’s extraordinary capacity to offer himself to another creative artist. Asked whether he himself wished to choreograph, Watson was clear: he believes that his talent is to make the choreographer’s ideas visible, not to create them himself; he just keeps working and trying to deliver what the choreographer asks for, and even if that turns out to be impossible, something else may emerge.

Guest spoke about the influence on his work of Hans Holbein, and of the portraits in the Tudor Room of the National Portrait Gallery, which inspired the luminous blue-green backgrounds to his images. Portraiture, with its quality of stillness and permanence seems the antithesis of an impermanent and ephemeral art form such as ballet, but the photographer’s gaze invites us to contemplate and reflect on a particular view of the dance and the dancer that might otherwise pass us by. Guest’s work reveals Watson as the ultimate embodiment of the androgynous qualities that pervade much new work in ballet today. While not in the least effeminate, Watson’s hyper-mobility enables him to move in ways and adopt positions that are more characteristic of female dancers; for example, there is picture of him in a 180° arabesque penché. This gives his work a certain ambiguity with regard to gender, and the juxtaposition of strength and vulnerability in some of the photographs suggests a fragility that is more often associated with female dancers.

Arlene Phillips, who was in the audience, asked how Watson’s exceptional way of dancing using every fibre of his body to tell a story could be passed on to future generations. Watson replied that it is part of the choreographic works that have been made on him; if they live on, so will the physicality. There is the interesting question, though, of what will come next: it is hard to see how dancers’ bodies can continue, indefinitely, to be pushed further and further beyond their present boundaries, and there is the additional challenge to the female ballet practitioner of how to assert herself in what appears to be an increasingly male-dominated art form. According to George Balanchine, ‘The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.’ His comment may seem extraordinarily sexist today, but it is still the case that, for the most part, men are the ballet gardeners; the difference is that the garden seems increasingly less likely to be woman.

Maggie Watson

13th January 2019


For more information on Rick Guest’s Edward Watson: Portrait of a Dancer see https://www.rickguest.gallery/