Watching her move it’s impossible not to notice that Valerie carries within her bones a living story of dance.
Whether she’s sipping tea, laughing in a moment of warm friendship, or rolling around in a pile of tulle on the floor, I’m always aware of the soul of her story — a story grounded in a lifetime of creating art. A story she wears effortlessly, cradled within her bones and expressed with a peaceful confidence.
Her movements are accompanied by an inner strength that has clearly been earned over time.
You see, this incredible woman has celebrated fifty seven orbits around the sun, during which she has collected dance, artistry, motherhood and the kind of wisdom that is only born of experience. She has gathered it up and absorbed it on a cellular level.
Her body is home to a lifetime of dance artistry. It lives and breathes through her...
. . . as if every dance she’s ever performed has woven itself into the very structure of her bones.
. . . as if the collective musical scores she has known intimately over her career are searching for ways to speak through her movements.
It’s a quality that a younger dancer has yet to earn: to radiate that kind of story with ease.
Valerie was plucked out of school as a young girl to train as a ballerina. She went on to dance professionally all over the globe with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet and more (see her bio below).
But time, as we know, dances forward as well.
And so, it’s expected that, after “a certain age,” even the best dancers must quietly leave the stage.
It’s expected that they’ll find something related to dance to occupy their time. Perhaps open a studio and find students to train. To pass the baton to the next generation without question.
Expectations are a funny thing though.
Perhaps you, too, sometimes feel an urge to break them? To show the world - or just yourself - that there’s more to a story than “expectations” might allow?
It took some time for Valerie to fully embrace the fact that I wanted to photograph her BECAUSE of the extraordinary beauty I see in the history that she has earned in her 57 years on earth.
That I wanted to celebrate her FOR her age. As part of a story I have been wanting to tell:
You see, I want to reshape the narratives we have come to accept on aging through photography.
To empower women so that we may fiercely own our stories at any age. Earned smile-lines and all.
To burst through societal expectations and celebrate this metamorphosis into something even more beautiful. Something gifted only to the very lucky.
And as it turned out, this idea indeed resonated with how Valerie wants to live.
To start writing a new chapter. To keep moving and to keep sharing that celebration of life with others.
To keep moving. To keep making ART.
Some backstory behind these images.
A year ago we arranged our first session, photographing inside the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. It was a powerful place to start, framing Valerie as she danced with these life-sized abstract paintings.
BELOW: A sample of our first dance photography session at the museum — you can view the full STORY HERE.
Photographing Valerie inside the museum was deeply seductive. The first breakthrough came when I watched her leap into works of abstract art, dancing with the paintings in a way that created new art inspired by Clyfford Still’s giant canvases. I was captivated by her expressive language. Together we were making photographs, mixing disciplines and creating beautiful art out of art. It felt amazing.
ABOVE: We went back for a second session a few months later which led to a new collection of beautiful images.
Photographing inside the museum was incredible, but as much as I loved the images, I felt an inexplicable desire to move our project to another location: What could we learn, beyond the gallery? What might we discover without the paintings to spark the initial conversation?
It was a bigger leap than either of us realized, to explore what kind of statements might emerge if we looked inward and placed the focus for our third collaboration on the pure expression of the knowledge and history which lives within her body. The story which might resonate beyond. I watched some behind the scenes iPhone video my son had taken while she moved and it hit me that we didn’t need the paintings. Val’s expressive movement had a narrative voice of its own.
So we shifted our focus on the expressive and mysterious nature of an experienced dancer’s movement. The collective memory which pulses through her.
This time, our session became more about writing a story that was uniquely OURS. But a story which might also be universally understood by anyone who has a body and aspires to keep moving once his or her treasured youth has evolved into something new. A new chapter which carries a new kind of grounded beauty and grace.
Heading to the studio that morning I had a pretty serious case of nerves. Turns out we were both nervous.
Valerie later noted it was like we were both preparing for a performance. And my camera was our audience.
I’ve often told myself that when I stop getting nervous before sessions it’s time to find something new to do in order to keep pushing my own creative edges. My son’s dad once calmed his nerves before a show by saying, “it’s ok to be nervous, it just means you care!” And wow — did this session give me the “I care” butterflies!
We started out photographing Valerie dancing in different flowing dresses. An antique blue velvet gown she’d worn to a gala. A simple nude leotard and some silk fabrics. A bit of shadow-play... exploring… searching (photos above).
But it was when we pulled out the pile of tulle that something magical happened.
In her movement. In my heart.
In the light that was being captured by my camera.
Leading up to this session, I’d been thinking a great deal about the role of narrative in photographs. Especially inspired after viewing large Richard Avedon photographs as part of the Dior exhibit in Denver, I thought about the opportunity to communicate something about Valerie’s story in what she was wearing. The real question was how to do this in a way that didn’t come across as cliche or too literal.
I hadn’t come up with anything yet, but as soon as she wrapped this home made tulle “skirt” around her nude body and started moving, it became clear that the volume and flexibility of this particular pile of fabric — with its own history in the world of dance — opened a doorway into the very story I was hoping we might tell. One that became abstract and full of art as she explored its edges.
I watched the tulle come alive as she pushed and pulled. It seemed to take on the ghostly spirit of every costume and tutu Valerie had ever worn. Collectively, the tulle with her improvisational movement told an entirely new story.
It told many stories in fact. At one point Valerie mentioned that she’d just felt the role she danced in Swan Lake inform a particularly bird-like expression.
Part of the impetus to book time in a studio was to have a safe space to experiment with artistic video recording on my Canon dSLR.
Val had been wanting to add this to our narrative tool-kit, but I’d had no experience with video — despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about adding artful videography to my skillset as a visual story teller for years. This seemed like the perfect time to learn (and was, no doubt, another contributing factor to my nerves that day).
I watched several tutorials the night before and then dove right in as soon as we arrived on set, failing many times before getting results which, to my pleasant surprise, nearly perfectly matched my vision.
Holy moly there’s a lot to learn but I’m thrilled to have taken the first leap, and quite proud of our first results.
Exploring movement of tulle and expression of body was a great place for me to dig deep as an artist and learn a new medium.
Experimenting with manual focus to create a sense of mystery and discovery for the viewer; learning to shoot at a high frame rate to be able to convert the video to slow motion; learning to edit these “moving pictures” in Photoshop to match the still photographs and create a cohesive story — it was all enormously gratifying.
I’d love for you to check out our first short video story below:
Valerie and I have approached each of these “art for art’s sake” sessions, importantly I think, without expectation or attachment to outcome.
Our goal has been discovery... pure creation. And as a result, each session has unfolded in an entirely organic fashion and taught us new things about our collaboration. And ourselves.
Two artists improvising. Exploring. Learning.
For me, this creative journey is deeply expansive. It taps into a different part of my brain to have no agenda beyond being receptive to the moment. Similar to a feeling I get with learning a director’s style with live theatre photography (I come to instinctively anticipate where to be to capture depth in staging), when we do these sessions I feel myself fall into a dance with Valerie as I travel the space with my camera in anticipation of her movement.
Watching, breathing, feeling the rhythm of the improvised dance. I direct her only minimally, and almost always in direct response to something she has done. “Ooh can you do that again facing the window so I see light on your face” or “I’m feeling bird expressions here, can we expand on that?” Or in our museum shoot, “Oh my God you just leapt and became part of the painting in the frame! We need to play with that!”
Improvisation. Capturing on instinct.
It’s a dance of a different kind: the dance of the photographer.
Wherever this goes, both of us feel ourselves opening to something new through this work. It feels vulnerable and intimate. While at the same time profoundly liberating and expansive.
Moody, mysterious, layered and expressive.
Like a dancer moving into her second act.
Most satisfying with this work are the moments you don’t plan. Moments of pure serendipitous magic. Do you see her eye in the tulle below? It’s a photograph which captures the spirit of my very favorite expression brought to life:
Work hard, and you’ll get lucky.