Backstage at the ballet
Photographs by Colin Jones from the 1960s and 1990s
By Theresa Thompson, Art Correspondent
Colin Jones Self Portrait, 1958. Taken in the Empire Theatre, Sydney on The Royal Ballet tour of Australia and New Zealand. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk
“You have an innate understanding of what it takes to be a dancer...” said Dame Darcey Bussell, former Royal Ballet principal, speaking to ballet dancer-turned-photographer Colin Jones at the opening of an exhibition of ballet photography at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford.
‘Backstage at the Ballet’ has the subtitle ‘Photographs by Colin Jones from the 1960s and 1990s’. To my mind it could equally be subtitled ‘The travails and the treasures’ for that is precisely what we see.
This is ballet photography par excellence that reveals the emotional intensity and beauty of ballet as well as the physical exertion and discipline of a dancer’s life.
Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev at a class before performing Swan Lakeat the Nervi Festival in Italy, 1962.Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk
Colin Jones (b. 1936) has been taking photographs for more than six decades and is one of Britain’s most significant post-war photojournalists. After a working-class childhood in London’s East End, Colin Jones trained as a dancer in the early 1950s, and joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and later The Royal Ballet Touring Company. In 1958, whilst running an errand for Margot Fonteyn, he bought his first camera. By 1962 he was a photographer for The Observer.
The exhibition features over 50 black and white images from the archive of TopFoto and Jones’s own collection, taken while he was a dancer then photographer in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. The prints include celebrated dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev whom he danced alongside, Ninette de Valois, Kenneth MacMillan, Lynn Seymour and Tamara Rojo.
When it comes to street photography, or travel, or anything more documentary in style it pays to be able to blend into the background. What better than to have been a ballet dancer, to know the intricacies of a position, the ballets, to be at one with the movements and dancers, to be one of them?
Ballet dancers passing the time at a rehearsal during one of The Royal Ballet’s many regional tours of the UK, early 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk
His “innate understanding” underpins the show. We share intimate, unselfconscious moments behind-the-scenes, downtime and its opposite. We see dancers passing the time knitting at a rehearsal during an early 1960s Royal Ballet tour of the UK; taking a break, keeping warm under blankets; weighing down legs to stretch them; having a quick smoke (this is the 1960s); bunched together on a stage, arms trimly crossed, taking applause on a last night; and ‘Swans’ backstage, forward stretching or chatting on an English National Ballet tour in Hong Kong in 1999.
During the early 1960s Jones captured images of the Kirov Ballet Company, at the time of Soviet-born Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West. He went on to photograph Nureyev at work with his dance partner, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and became friends with Nureyev.
Princess Margaret (centre) at a party on stage at the Royal Opera House, with ballerinas Georgina Parkinson (back to camera) and Antoinette Sibley, 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk
Recalling Nureyev’s charismatic presence, he said, ‘when he was on stage, you couldn’t take your eyes of him’.
Jones’s compositional skills come across well in the works on show, notably in the photo of Nureyev and Fonteyn practising arabesques at the barre before performing Swan Lake in Italy in 1962, and in the picture of Princess Margaret chatting at the Royal Ballet party after the first night of Sleeping Beauty in 1961.
These are rarely seen moments behind-the-scenes and a wonderful celebration of ballet. Many of the images have never been on public display before. All the works are for sale.
Backstage at the Ballet
Showing until: 7 March 2020
The North Wall Arts Centre
Oxford OX2 7JN Tel: 01865 319 450