“Ballet on Film” is an intimate story of how Honolulu Classical Ballet evolved to keep art and its artists relevant during the pandemic. It was a collaboration with Honolulu Classical Ballet and artistic director Romi Beppu into the rich hues, spirited movements, and magical artistry that is ballet in Hawaii.
Instead of focusing on the performance on stage, much of the visual story revolves around the in-between moments during rehearsal – all the little details that are woven together to create the final show.
Told over the course of three years, the story follows the school through pre-pandemic performances to virtual and outdoor classes during lockdown, ending with a triumphant return to the stage for their tenth anniversary. The majority of the project was shot on Kodak Portra 800 with a 50-year-old Yashica 635 TLR film camera and was first featured on EMULSIVE in this August 2020 “5 Frames…” article.
This article takes a closer look at selected images from the project, how they came to be and why they came to form part of the project. Click each image to view them full-screen.
“Before Class”, 2021 Spring, In-Studio
In the spring of 2021, Honolulu Classical Ballet resumed in-person classes. I attended the senior class, Ballet Technique 4, on Friday nights for eight weeks. “Before Class” was taken during this session and is one of my favorite photos from “Ballet on Film.”
The first time I stepped into this building I marveled at the architecture and beautiful light that cascaded down upon the dancers. What a gorgeous space with such enchanting light that I’d never noticed before.
You see, I’ve passed by this building at least 100 times and never given it a second look. I grew up in Kaimuki, the east Honolulu neighborhood where this studio is located, and from the outside, this structure seems like any other old-fashioned building. Full of charm and character, but in no way striking or particularly memorable.
But once you step inside and at the right time of day when the sun is shining in illuminating whatever is in its gaze – this structure is extraordinary. And that magical feeling is what washed over me the first day I attended class.
That evening, as we waited in the stairway while Romi Beppu, the artistic director, fiddled with the studio lock I took a few shots with my iPhone in preparation. I knew I wanted to show Romi my vision and also ask her to spend more time “fiddling” with the studio lock next Friday so I’d have 30-60 more seconds on the stairs with the dancers.
Most of “Ballet on Film” was shot with a Yashica 635 on medium format, which I had with me that day. I knew that for this shot I wanted to use my 35mm Canon A-1 to show how grand and larger than life the structure was by capturing it with a 2:3 aspect ratio or rectangular photo instead of my usual square format shots.
When I look at “Before Class” now it reminds me that beauty is everywhere. All around us and sometimes hidden right in front of us.
“Mirror Mirror”, 2020 John Landovsky Tribute Performance, Leeward Theater
In the spring of 2020, the ballet community gathered at Leeward Theater to celebrate John Landovsky. Mr. Landovsky is a retired artistic director who trained and mentored many ballet teachers who now operate ballet schools throughout Hawaii.
Heading into this performance, I knew I wanted to work with mirrors. I love looking at a subject indirectly. I’m drawn to windows, doorways and anything I can use to create a frame within a frame. I love photographing a subject reflected in a mirror, it adds another dimension to the image and in some cases, turns a boring angle into an interesting one.
I also believe that life is a mirror. We reflect the way we feel inside, out. If there is a golden glow inside you shine that light out onto others. So mirrors aren’t only visually alluring, they hold a deeper meaning.
Because there were so many dance schools involved in this show, our dressing room ended up being a dark theater. There were only a few overhead lights that were quickly absorbed by the wall-to-wall black fabric and paint. I eventually found a large dressing room with a long, beautiful vanity and a large gorgeous mirror on an adjoining wall. I quickly posed Caroline and Maddie (above) in the vanity while I stood on a chair and focused on their reflection in the large rectangular mirror. Right after I pressed the shutter I knew if this photo wasn’t completely blurry, and turned out half as good as what I saw in the viewfinder – it would be one of the best shots I’d ever taken.
The thread of intention woven into the creation of “Mirror Mirror” continued into post-production. Just as I arrived at that shoot with the goal of using mirrors, once the photo was captured and the editing began I decided to remove many of the image’s distracting elements. As you’ll see in the unedited scan there are light switches, a Glade plugin and other knobs on either side of the mirror.
I photoshopped all of those out in the final version, along with the red fire alarm above the lockers, and touched up other areas of the image. I remove things from my work that I deem distracting. My intention is to focus the viewer on the dancers reflected in the mirror.
In 2020, “Mirror Mirror” won an international award from The Photo Review. The jury consisted of the director of photography and photo editor from The New York Times Magazine.
“Joy!” & “Untitled”, 2020 Outdoor Class, Waiʻalae Iki Park
During the summer of 2020, the school arranged an outdoor class at Wai’alae Iki park. This was the first time the older students had seen one another since the lockdowns began. The energy and joy that filled that afternoon was very special.
A notable shot from that day shows Romi jumping high in the air. Although we can’t see her face, the surge of dynamic energy can be clearly felt. I titled this photo “Joy!” because that’s what filled our hearts that day.
In the shot below, “Untitled”, the directional light casts these beautiful shadows elongating the dancer’s legs and arms. The shadows add another linear element to the lines already running through the court. The small pile of sand also adds something . . . but I’m not quite sure what.
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Although it looks as if a breeze could whisk it away, it grounds me. Whenever I see this photo my eyes move first from the black sneakers to the small mount of sand.
That is why this shot is left “Untitled.” I have such a deep love for it, but I can’t explain why. Even the crack that begins out of frame then weaves its way into the scene – will it stop there or keep growing? When the court was finished there was no crack, but now there is and we adjust – we keep living and dancing with it.
“Rouge”, 2020 John Landovsky Tribute Performance, Leeward Theater
The school’s final show before the pandemic took place at Leeward Theater. It was recently built so everything was beautiful, modern and new.
As I walked backstage and along the wings, I looked for a way to capture the larger-than-life feeling. Not only was the venue expansive, but the performance was as well. There were so many schools and students involved in this show the theater felt filled before the audience was even allowed in.
As I explored backstage and walked along the wings the waterfall of ropes cascading down caught my attention. I decided to base this shot on the ropes running from top to bottom.
I positioned myself on one side of the stage and waited till one of our dancers was rehearsing. As Shosha moved through her dance I waited till the students from other ballet schools flooded the side of the stage to watch. Although they are draped in shadows their presence is felt.
Capturing dance can be tricky. Often I wait until the dancer hits their final pose then click. At that time I know there is a moment or two when they’ll hold that final gesture before taking their bow. And that’s exactly what I did with “Rouge.” Although the dancer may be the subject of the shot for others, it’s the waterfall of ropes that I adore.
Another key element of this story is the color. There were no red lights during this performance. The stage lights were actually blue and yellow, but when I scanned the negative and before applying color correction, the image appeared as a bold, fiery red.
Red is such a powerful color. It’s love, life, death, desire, anger, pain. It’s striking and loud, but it can be mysterious and romantic. It conjures so many emotions in me and that’s why I like to incorporate it into my art. I have another series of shots titled “Red Reflection” which also scanned in as a deep, rich red that completely transformed the feeling of the work.
Art is emotion.
“Swans” & “Mastering the Bow”, 2021 Swan Lake, Holy Nativity School Gym
In 2021, traditional theaters were still not allowing indoor performances so Honolulu Classical Ballet held their spring show in a gym at Holy Nativity School.
Over the three years of “Ballet on Film” I’ve spent the most time with the dancers who are now in Ballet Technique 4, the school’s senior class. I met all of them in 2019 during my first shoot and it’s been wonderful watching them grow into the strong, graceful young women pictured in “Swans.”
This is one of my favorite photos from this project. It embodies the elegance of classical ballet, yet it’s set in a gym where the dancers are standing on a basketball court and using the end of stage as their barre. The shot is a sign of the times, but also makes a clear statement that art lives on.
Another photo I hold dear is “Mastering the Bow” which shows the school’s youngest dancers practicing their bow. I love the level of concentration and dynamic energy of the students trying to mirror their teacher, Ms. Aya.
It’s a photo about where it begins. Many of the older students have been with Honolulu Classical Ballet since prima and many of the students in “Mastering the Bow” will continue to grow and learn with the school. This photo marks the first chapter in their ballet journey. I also like the light shining in illuminating their pastel tutus. It’s hopeful and bright like when you’re a kid, everything is a new experience and a new opportunity.
Please learn more about this project and my work at lisakcho.com and on Instagram, @lisakcho. As mentioned above, the majority of the “Ballet on Film” was shot on Kodak Portra 800 with a 50-year-old Yashica 635, and you will find the project in its entirety via the dedciated balletonfilm.com website.
A select work, “Waiting in the Wings,” will be on display at “Through the Looking Glass” presented by Asian Archives. The New York City exhibition runs from October 6th to 31st at Brooklyn Film Camera.
“Through the Looking Glass” was created by Asian Archives in response to the rise of violence and hate directed toward the AAPI community.
Thanks for reading and please ask any questions in the comments below!
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Such rich and soulful images! Your passion and respect for your subject really shine through, and the 800 film stock really adds to the depth. I’m partial to old Yashicas myself. 🙂
Beautiful job, Bravo, Lisa!