BWW Interviews: Kyle Froman In His Own Words: Photographing Ballet to Broadway
Kyle Froman has made the extraordinary transformation from dancer for America's premier Dance Company to one of the country's best -known dance and theater photographers.
Editor's note: After interviewing Kyle Froman I decided to dispense with any question-answer format and let Kyle speak in his own words. Yes, that's how good, shall I say outstanding, he was,
Photographs appear on page 2. When you finish reading the article, click on Page 2 for the photograph gallery.
In retrospect it would have been more surprising if I hadn't ended up as a ballet and Broadway photographer. Dance and Broadway were my consuming passions even as a child.
I'm originally from Fort Worth, Texas. My twin brother Kurt and I were the youngest of six children. My mom taught dance at my sister Debbi Jo's dance studio, which she had started in my parents' garage when she was sixteen. It was a huge success in Fort Worth by the time I was born.
Kurt and I were incredibly energetic, running off to do cartwheels in restaurants and riding the elevators the minute we went into any hotel. We also loved to dress up in my mom's leotards and tights, and there are famous stories of us walking up and down the street in her high heels and nightgowns. We fell in love with the musical Annie after we saw the touring production in San Francisco, and I remember blaring the original soundtrack on my record player and inviting my parents in to perform for them. Kurt and I had an old pair of tap shoes that we shared, and we'd take turns singing and "tapping" on the coffee table. We also had an Annie wig that doubled as a Tootsie wig that we'd take turns wearing.
I think we were fascinated with the idea of transforming into characters and the escape that Broadway shows offered. This was about the time Kurt and I were five, and our parents' were getting divorced. There was a very bad custody battle, and my mom won.
My mother wanted us to have hobbies, but finding ones that suited us was tricky. Kurt and I weren't like her other sons. We hated football and had no interest in any other sport.
Noticing our artistic inclinations, and probably to spite my father, my mom asked us if we'd like to try taking tap at my sister's studio. We did, and loved it. A year later, we added jazz to the mix, and a year after that ballet - which we hated. My sister wouldn't let us quit. "It will clean up your tap and jazz technique," she told us, so we stuck it out.
Once we saw the movie Six Weeks, we were smitten. The movie is about a talented young ballet dancer, Katherine Healy, who wants to dance in The Nutcracker before she dies of leukemia- definitely a Kyle and Kurt movie! Rather than just go see The Nutcracker, my mother asked if we'd like to audition for it. This involved changing dance schools and wearing tights, and though this new ballet school wasn't top-notch, it changed everything we thought about ballet. We were eleven years old.
The older we got, the less verbal we were in school about our activities. Few people knew what we did after school or the love we had for dancing. The structure of ballet and the chance to sweat out our daily stresses was saving our minds from the chaos that came from the divorce. We felt as if we finally had control over something in our lives.
When we turned fourteen we changed ballet schools again, this time to the Fort Worth Ballet. Paul Mejia was the director of the company, and the dancers there and in the school were steeped in the Balanchine style. The day we auditioned for the school we were brought in to watch the company rehearse. I had never been so blown away. I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
My brother and I started coming up to the School of American Ballet (SAB) for the summers when we were fifteen. Those five week intensives were beyond thrilling. Not only were we in New York City by ourselves, but we were spending the days dancing, taking technique, partnering, variations, and character dance classes.
Stanley Williams, who was a legendary teacher, taught my first class, and I remember he spoke so softly that the students had to gather around just to hear what the combinations were. The movement quality in his class was so interesting and musical; I loved how he made us aware of using the weight of our plié against the floor. Our class was filled with devoted NYCB company members, all there to soak up Stanley's wisdom.
It was wonderful being around different boys our age who also danced. I remember feeling happy that it wasn't just my twin brother with whom I had so much in common. For the first time in my life, there were guys around me who shared my love of ballet. Even better than that, they'd be my friends!
And every night was an opportunity to see the New York City Ballet perform, albeit from the nosebleed seats of the fifth ring. I remember seeing Darci Kistler in Walpurgisnacht Ballet, Duo Concertant, and Apollo; Robbie LaFosse in Who Cares? and Damian Woetzel and Peter Boal in Quiet City.
We ended up attending three of these summer courses. The school always asked us to stay for the winter term, but our father wouldn't consider it until we finished high school.
By the time we were eighteen we had graduated a year early from high school, been professional company members with the Fort Worth Ballet, and were finally moving up to study at the school full-time. We were awarded the first Rudolf Nureyev scholarships, which allowed us to study at SAB free of charge.
It was a gamble leaving Fort Worth Ballet, but joining the New York City Ballet was our goal, and the scholarship wasn't something we could pass up. We crossed our fingers and returned to being students at SAB. Six months later we got into the New York City Ballet.
My first impression when I started with the company was of the huge workload the dancers have every day. Your day starts with class at 10:30 am. You have roughly five hours of rehearsal every afternoon. Afterwards, you put on your makeup and perform every night. Monday is the dancers' free day, the one exception. Maintaining that schedule is incredibly exciting but also grueling when you do it for weeks on end. Trying to ward off exhaustion and injuries becomes as much your focus as learning the next ballet. I talk a lot about this in my book, In the Wings: Behind the Scenes at the New York City Ballet.
When I first joined the NYCB, Jerome Robbins was still alive and choreographing. I got to work with him when he brought back Les Noces for City Ballet as well as West Side Story Suite, which I absolutely loved.
Jerry was very hard to please, but I respected that. He knew exactly what he wanted and had no problem screaming at people until he got it. There's nothing like that though--having Jerry Robbins screaming at you. Even rehearsals were danced full-out, with energy and detail that rivaled performances.
I missed that pressure of dancing for a genius after he died. I felt the bar inevitably dropped quickly afterwards.
I first became interested in photography during the Nutcracker season of 2005. I can only explain it as I started seeing pictures. I'd catch glimpses during barre and throughout my day and night. Thus, my second career began.
I made a project out of it, just for myself. I began taking photographs, baby steps. Over the weeks, I saw my photos were getting better. Every night, I'd bring the day's photos home and look at them with my husband. He taught me to start seeing the interesting details of being a dancer, things I was so used to seeing that I'd sometimes not notice while photographing.
At the same time I was driving Perry Silvey, NYCB's stage manager, absolutely crazy, because I was photographing from the wings. I'd even bring my camera onstage with me if a dancer was retiring and taking her final bows. The opportunity was just too tempting to pass up, but I got screamed at a lot.
After a few months I had amassed a huge number of images and saw that there could be a book in them. I found a literary agent who was a ballet fan, and she loved my idea. We found a great home for In the Wings at John Wiley & Sons, and, a year later, I was a published author.
When I was working on In the Wings I was only shooting candid, documentary-style photos. I remember wondering if that was all I wanted to do. I felt if I ever set up a shot or posed anybody it would somehow look false.
I got my chance to do just that in 2008. The New York City Ballet was bringing back the Dancers' Emergency Fund Gala, which raised money for dancers in need. They asked me to make a sixteen-page photo booklet for the event, and told me I could show the company in any way I wanted.
I decided to pose the dancers throughout the theater and integrate them with the architecture. I used their bodies to brace up the pillars on the front of the theater, draped them over the red velvet seats in the house, and stretched them out over the travertine stone floors of the theater's promenade. That was the first time I ever posed anybody, and those ended up being some of my most memorable photos.
I was amazed by the thrill of conceiving a shot and fleshing it out with my camera. It made me want to try to shoot other things, from street photography to fashion.
Luckily, I've always been a visual person. I have an excellent memory, and when I recall something- a number, an occurrence- I see a picture of it in my mind. So making pictures with my camera was very natural to me too. And ballet gave me a strong work ethic, discipline, and drive.
I knew my career as a dancer was drawing to a close. I had been a New York City Ballet dancer for thirteen years. By then I was ready for a change, and I was excited to explore my new passion for photography. I think my only worry was giving up the security of working for the company, getting a nice paycheck every week and having health insurance. But it was time to move on.
I've often been asked about the pitfalls of capturing dance in motion. I think the most difficult part about it is knowing how to best capture certain choreography. Shooting a Balanchine or Robbins ballet is super easy. Both choreographers were incredibly musical, so the dancers are usually together on the same beat.
The more modern choreographers are harder to shoot. Their ballets don't lend themselves to being photographed as easily. Twyla Tharp's ballets come to mind. Her movement and musicality has an improv quality to it. It gives her ballets a spontaneous and organic energy, but the dancers end up being in their own little worlds. It makes it harder to capture a good shot of everybody on the stage.
New York City Ballet is my favorite company to shoot. Not only are their dancers and repertoire top notch, but their sets, costumes and lighting are as well. Plus, it's where I danced, so I'm very familiar with all parts there.
The Royal Danish Ballet is also amazing to photograph. I love Copenhagen, the dancers are wonderful, and there's nothing like getting flown there to photograph. I feel very lucky whenever I get the chance to go there.
These days I shoot more Broadway than dance. Over the past year I've shot photos for so many shows, from Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables to Mary Poppins and Flashdance. I've always loved the energy of a performance, so I stand and move around while I shoot, whether it's a rehearsal or an actual show. It ends up feeling like a dance for me, like I'm still connected with that energy in the theater.
That doesn't mean that shooting a Broadway production is just fun; it has its own challenges. Many shows have very dim lighting and some use haze. Broadway theaters are generally very intimate with seats close to the stage, but touring Broadway productions can end up in massive spaces. I remember shooting a tour of Billy Elliot where I was exhausting myself just running from one side of the house to the other trying to get my shots.
In a way, I feel like I've come full circle. I'd love to do another book and to have a gallery showing. But mostly, I just want to shoot Broadway forever. I love returning home with each show's music in my head. I just need to shoot Annie now!
Peter Lockyer (Jean Valjean) in a performance of the New 25th Anniversary tour production of Les Miserables.