Backstage Ballet - Photography By Mary McCartney Donald At Dimbola Lodge

By Emily Sands | 24 May 2005
Shows a black and white photo of a bare-chested male dancer lighting a cigarette

An unexpected sight. The exhibition is full of contradictions. Courtesy Dimbola Lodge.

Sporting legwarmers and a tutu, Emily Sands pirouetted to Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight to see Mary McCartney Donald’s Off Pointe photography exhibition, which runs from May 13 to June 26 2005.

She has photographed celebrities from Jude Law to Blondie, but Mary McCartney Donald’s exhibition Off Pointe goes behind the curtains to see the private moments of dancers from The Royal Ballet corps. The results are a combination of reality and glamour.

Mary’s love of photography stems from her childhood and her mother, Linda McCartney, who never went anywhere without her camera on her shoulder.

The idea for the exhibition first came about when Mary met Vanessa Fenton, choreographer and member of the Corps de Ballet, in a Soho bar. She was intrigued by the contrast between the gruelling, painful lifestyle and the fairy tale performance.

Shows a black and white photo of a dancer going upstairs. The back of her dress is undone.

McCartney Donald has captured the highs and lows of the life of a dancer. Courtesy Dimbola Lodge.

Mary approached The Royal Ballet for permission to follow the company for three months, including an inspirational period in New York. Photographs taken here expose in graphic detail the reality of the dancers’ world.

Many of the black and white shots show unexpected contradictions: a muscular male ballet dancer having a cigarette between acts; naked ballerinas drinking coke in their dressing room at the Opera House; and a dancer eating a huge burger after a night of clubbing.

Mary McCartney Donald has avoided photographing the dancers on stage or in rehearsals, being reluctant to approach such a well-documented subject. What she has captured is exactly what the public want: a voyeuristic peek at what goes on when dancers are off pointe. Some myths are dispelled along the way, with McCartney Donald showing us that dancers work hard but play hard too.

She says of the project, “I was extremely fortunate to get a glimpse of the blood, sweat, tears and laughter that make up a Royal Ballet tour. I have shot portraits of musical figures my entire career but this was a very different and moving experience.”

Shows a black and white photo of a female dancer in tights, leaning towards the dressing room mirror to put on make up.

The photographs take a peek at dancers' private moments.

Dimbola Lodge is the former home of pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, so is an apt venue to be showing the work of another female photographer. Cameron also photographed and mixed in illustrious circles that included the poet Lord Tennyson and other celebrities of the time.

Mary’s large photos are composed in ways that create movement and tension. Heads and bodies are sometimes cropped, and big gaps are often left in the shots, which gives the feeling of action, as if an off-duty dancer has just left the space or is about to move into it.

The viewer certainly gets an intimate impression of the behind-the-scenes life of a ballet dancer, with the highs and lows that it brings. Nevertheless, even photographs that are supposed to be harshly realistic end up seeming glamorous.

Shots like one of a lonely dancer climbing stairs at the end of a hard performance or a tired dancer being comforted, may still make some viewers wish they had never given up those ballet lessons when they were young.

Dubbed as Mary McCartney Donald’s coming-of-age work, this exhibition proves that she is not successful just because of her name, but for her confident photographs that contain more insight that most.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Emily Sands is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance student journalist for the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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