Backstage at the Ballet, an exhibition of photographs by Colin Jones, opened yesterday 11th February with a well-researched and entertaining presentation by Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria &  Albert Museum, on Photographing Dance and Dancers.  Pritchard spoke interestingly and informatively about dancer-turned-photographer Colin Jones, the history of dance photography, and Jones’ photo-journalism, focusing on his work with dancers.  She drew attention to the wealth of social and historical information in his images, from evidence of the terrible quality of studio floors in the 1960s, to the way in which dancers used to spend their ‘down time’ knitting before there were mobile phones.

Jones’ pictures document the everyday life of company dancers.  He does not set out to dazzle or shock; he simply shows the hard work, the waiting around, the companionship, and the sheer exhaustion that lie behind what we see on stage.  We see the ordinary lives of people who are not in the least ordinary.  The black and white pictures are beautifully constructed, but Jones’ technique and artistry is always subordinate to his subject matter.  His deep understanding of the dance itself shows in the way that he conveys movement, for example a dancer practising a pirouette or fouetté turns, or caught in motion in a spiralling attitude.

The exhibition groups pictures of particular companies and tours together.  Some of his subjects, such as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, were famous when he photographed them; others not (or not yet, such as the young Tamara Rojo).  All the images feel absolutely authentic, even the most stylishly striking, such as the wonderful picture of Elizabeth Anderton, in her furs, walking down a street in the Gorbals.  Nothing feels staged, although these are people with a vocation to perform.

For the professional dancers in the audience last night, it was clearly a trip down memory lane as they spotted pictures of legendary former teachers such as Winifred Edwards, commented on changes in style and technique and reminisced about the past.  There was a lively discussion at the end of Pritchard’s talk about knitting: Royal Ballet dancer Lesley Collier’s mother had a knitting machine and would take orders for bespoke leg-warmers from members of the company.  A member of the audience mentioned that more recently, the mother of former English National Ballet dancer Daria Klimentová did the same.

This is a remarkable exhibition on many levels, and I urge anyone with an interest in ballet, in twentieth century social history, or simply in photography, to go and see it.  We are very fortunate that it is here in Oxford at the North Wall.

Maggie Watson

12th February 2020