Ballerina Project: ‘The pearl was there, the pearl was there.’

‘There’d be visions, girls, everything!’ (Kerouac, On the Road).


So this week for class we were asked to scout out a photograph/s related to our dissertations. My dissertation is titled On the Road to Fear and Loathing, addressing post-war American highways as both object and subject of discourse with regards the American Dream. I use key contemporary road literature as a lens of analysis, as well as several photographic sources, focussing more specifically on countercultural groups, members of the Beat Generation, and… Hunter S. Thompson (I hesitate to lump him in with a wider movement, as he often is – just look at his canon).

The images I’ve decided to use for this exercise are taken from the Ballerina Project, an on-going venture by Dane Shitagi. Questionable link? Bear with me… Yes, the ballerinas are in America. Sure, they’re pictured on roads, under bridges, and serenely balanced on bonnets… but the real link is spatiotemporal. Every image constitutes a babushka doll of energy and inertia, multidimensional and far richer than the kitsch ‘they’re so pretty!’ comments, that they contract like a disease, credit them as being. They are certainly beautiful, but for reasons that lie beyond the setting, female shape or prowess in ballet. With particular reference to the images taken in urban environments, the images do, as Johnson claims, clear a space for silence within a city cacophony. However, the real conflict is between the motion and the static. Ballerinas would traditionally be viewed at a theatre, where the audience is still and the stage is a hive of activity. Here we see this inverted, as the viewer swiping through an Instagram feed exerts more activity in their viewing than the athlete themself, hung frozen in tension with the New York bustle (or Bussell? Ha). They’re photographed largely in film, an antiquated format, scanned up and viewable on our laptop screens. The layers of modernity both compliment and contrast the layers of motion contained within each shot. This ‘move-ception’ is perpetuated by the changing locations, styles, formats, dancers and skill in every photograph. The sense of progress espoused by the timeless art of dance, democratised by the modern machine (a statement in itself on shifting social mobility), is made even more poignant by Barthes’ ‘photography is theatre’ analogy. Surreally, the ballerinas perform in the every-day theatre of the cityscape, their poses and jumps live only in reality for a split second, but eternally in the photographs. In Shitagi’s images, the ballet world makes a bid for immortality, receiving far more Facebook hits than posts by pages representing actual ballet institutions.

Recently there seems to be a real trend for photographing ballerinas in urban environments. The 14 year effort of Shitagi seems somewhat undermined by every Tom, Dick and Pavlova with a camera, a tutu and a pause in the traffic. Far less artfully, Luis Pons seems to lose that clear sense of ‘potential for movement’ (Johnson) that Shitagi’s photographs embody.

The post-war period that my dissertation research considers buzzes with this confused sense of time and movement. As Marling claims: ‘to move was to live and breathe’ in the post-war period. The highway as my dissertation presents it serves both as an ideological battleground and idealistic escape, as passions of race and class clash and ennui occasionally takes over. In a world described as ‘neo-victorian’ (Hart), restless youths were driving seventy-two hours cross-country for visions and jazz (Ginsberg). Mobility is a foundation stone in American lore, and yet there is an intense modernity in post-war ‘autoerotica’ muddled in with this nostalgia.

Although less explicitly linked to my dissertation than the works of Eggleston, Frank, Ginsberg, Owens, Shore, Soth, and even Stryker, who imaged roads, bohemian lifestyle, Americana and social situation, considering works from outside the parentheses of my research period and focus sends my mind pirouetting off into further connections and I find myself on the road (pun deeply, thoroughly intended) to squeezing out my next painful sentence of dissertation.

As the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, thousands of pictures convey partly one dissertation. Though that’s not quite as catchy, not quite as proverbial… It’s more specific… Definitely questionable. Select images from the collection can also be found on the Instagram account.

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