Ballet Photography: After the Curtain Call

When we admire ballet photography, we are usually met with images of ethereal beauty and elegance—graceful bird-like creatures with legs high in the air, elaborate tailor-made tulle dresses, and muscles so toned they make you swear off ice-cream—images that whisk us into the dreamlike world that is a ballet performance.

Darian Volkova takes it one step further. A former professional ballerina, she captures the essence of a moment like few photographers can. “I truly love and am inspired by my job every day,” she says. “I burn for photography.” In a way, Darian was destined to work in the creative space. Born in Khabarovsk, picturesque city on the Amur River in Far Eastern Russia, she began dancing at the very young age of 3. “I grew up in an artistic family, with Mum and Dad both working as drama performers,” she recalls. “It was my mother who sent me to dance school. I was a very active child, and dancing offered a way to burn all that energy.”

ballet photography
Volkova shows her model the photos from their shoot. Photograph by Ksenia Zasetskaya.

Interestingly, ballet was not Darian’s first dance class. As a three-year-old, she excelled in
ballroom dancing. But from seven onwards it was all about ballet, even though she dabbled in both folk and contemporary dance in later years. “Ballet became my favorite dance form,” she says. “Classical-style dance is understood to be the most difficult genre to dance, and it’s generally considered that those who are accomplished ballet dancers can master any dance style.”

Ballet in Russia

Darian emphasizes that she did not always love ballet, and the tasks sometimes proved extremely demanding. “When you’re a child, you don’t necessarily understand why the exercises have to be so complicated, but I loved the feeling that performing on stage invoked in me. For that feeling, I was prepared to work,” she says. “With time, my love and respect for ballet grew. I began to understand how to work with the body, how to progress, and ultimately what to strive for. Ballet … dance … movement … it became the most important thing in my life.”

At the age of 19, Darian left her family and friends behind and moved to St. Petersburg, where she began attending the prestigious St. Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts. “I really struggled with the change because of my strong family connections,” she recalls. “I spent a lot of time with my parents, grandparents and friends when growing up, so leaving everyone I loved was devastating. It was very hard for my mum, too, and for a year we cried on the phone every day together.”

ballet photography
The bowed head of ballerina Aizgan Mucatova of Astana Ballet Theatre.

Life in St. Petersburg danced to a different beat, and it took more than a year for Darian to become accustomed to her new surroundings. Nevertheless, she made friends quickly and found the beautiful, grand city inspiring. “The university was very new and very big, and I found everything about it interesting,” she recalls. “I also spent a lot of time immersing myself in culture, visiting museums and theaters, and admiring the architecture of St. Petersburg’s historical buildings.”

The Gift of Photography

Even with all the excitement that moving to a new city brought, coming home to see family and friends during vacations was a highlight for Darian. And it was during one of those return visits when she met the man who was to become her husband, Sasha. “I was 19 years old when we met, and my husband was 17 at the time. It was Sasha who gifted me my first camera, a Canon EOS 3000. Since the very first day we met he has been my biggest support in all aspects of my life. I don’t know who I would be now without him,” she says.

ballet pictures
Volkova captures the stage as a backstage ballerina behind the folds of the curtains.

Darian’s love of ballet photography quickly flourished as she learned to navigate both the camera and her subjects. Still, to this day, she doesn’t excessively focus on the equipment, instead thinking more about light and angles and how to capture the essence of a moment. “For me, the camera is a tool that simply helps me convey the message I want to express, and not vice-versa,” she explains. “There’s a Russian joke about a cook who enquires what saucepan was used to make a delicious soup, assuming it was an expensive one. The joke is that whatever saucepan was used, it’s not important. What is important is who cooked the soup.”

Soon after completing her university studies, Darian began traveling for ballet performances, and travel quickly became another of her passions. “I toured all around Europe, and although it was challenging at times, I became accustomed to a new theater, a new stage, and a new audience every day.” The time away also allowed her to explore different aspects of her ballet photography. She started with behind-the scenes ballet photography, but then the scope of her work broadened. “I began to set up my own shoots with theater friends, then started developing ideas for various staged projects,” she says. “I have also been in a very privileged position with access to the stars of the ballet world.”

ballet pictures
Self-portrait by the artist in celebration of her birthday.

Capturing Movement

The next logical step for Darian was to share her photographs with the world, and Instagram appeared to be the right vehicle. She first started playing around with the medium in 2011, and by 2013 her ballet photography had a fan base. With each photo she posted, her follower numbers grew. As her passion for photography developed, Darian found that she was spending more time behind the lens and less time on stage. But she welcomed the change, realizing that it could, in fact, be a blessing. “I was 25 when ballet began taking a backseat, but I recognized that I would need to retire from ballet someday, and I wanted to leave in my own time or on my own terms—and painlessly. I have many former colleagues who were not ready to finish their ballet journey when it was their time, and nor did they have anywhere to go. It’s very difficult psychologically to retire from a profession you have given everything to at the young age of 35. And it’s so hard when you continue to love ballet, but you are unable to dance professionally.”

Whether she planned to initially or not, Darian has carved out a niche for herself. Now 30 and living in Moscow with Sasha, she can continue to be part of the ballet world. “I am very fortunate,” she explains. “I’ve physically left ballet, but I continue to live and breathe ballet, just in a different capacity. I am a ballet photographer who understands all the complexities that ballet involves, so I’m able to photograph in a way not many others would be able to.” These days, Darian uses a Sony Leica for most of her work—but she stresses again that the camera doesn’t have much to do with the finished art piece. For her, the connection she makes with ballet dancers when working, and the understanding that comes from having been there herself, is what helps create that perfect shot.

Backstage with Volkova
Backstage with Volkova from a photoshoot for Gazprom in the Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg.

The Story of Ballet

“If the situation calls for it, I ask the dancer how things are in the theater or at rehearsals and keep the conversation flowing. It’s important that we connect and that the subject is able to relax in front of the camera,” she says. “But, of course, it varies from shoot to shoot. Sometimes I try to control the process, other times I improvise and go with the flow, sensitive to the mood of the dancer. With behind-the-scene shoots, in particular, I try to be invisible to the artists and capture the story that way.”

Even with all the best intentions, Darian has days that don’t flow as well as others. But she is realistic about her own expectations and understands the ebb and flow that comes with any creative work. “Sometimes, like any artist, I have predicaments and think everything I’ve done is terrible. But then I allow myself to stop and I relax—go to museums, watch movies, read books. It’s important to devote time to calm the mind and find a balance within yourself.” Darian’s philosophy clearly works. Her ballet photography not only conveys a story but also pauses it for fans so that they, too, can grasp the moment captured and inhale it slowly.

The legs of my muse.
“The legs of my muse.” Volkvova captures Anna Ol, the principal dancer with Dutch National Ballet, as she flutters her feet.

Most of her images portray the beauty that ballet is renowned for, but there are many photographs that show the challenges that come with the art form—photographs that display bruised and battered toes or ballerinas flopped down on the ground exhausted at the end of a rehearsal day. In a way, it’s a reflection of the ballet world exactly as it is—beautiful, raw, and like nothing else in the world. Darian is just one of the lucky few. She’s able to live and breathe her passion, and she can share the intricacies of ballet with the world.

Written by Tatyana Leonov

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