We all need inspiration. And we find it in different aspects, through reading, watching a documentary or a movie, paintings, images of all kind, research, and many a time through inspiring individuals. I was living in a period of my life in St. Petersburg, Russia - a city build on what used to be unlivable marshland, by Tsar Peter the Great as a window on Europe, which he knew well through his travels, and to display the impressive power and superiority of the Romanovs. I loved the city, every step you make in the historical centre is full of history, reminiscent of the great writers, composers and painters who lived there. I frequently thought of the writers Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Lermontov and Akhmatova, composers Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich, painters Bryllov, Shishkin and Repin and film directors Kozintsev and Tarkovsky who dwelled in the city, in my daily walk. This usually took me from the Maarinsky Theatre, the Conservatory through to St Isasc’s Cathedral and from the end of the Neva, towards the Peter the Great statue on the Neva, onto Dvortsovy Bridge towards the Hermitage Museum and through Nevsky Prospekt. Every Friday, I used to ‘get lost’ in the Hermitage, with its vast and impressive collection and my visits to the Russian Museum where Russian painters are displayed, and the numerous theatres where very frequent. One of my favourite sections of the Hermitage was the third floor where the impressionist painters where exhibited and unconsciously but surely I was definitely inspired by the ballet paintings of Degas, Manet and Toulouse - Lautrec. Besides, I tried to meet with as many people as I could who were running or into the cultural scene - I had friends who were performers, and artists from all spheres, and was in good contact with the British editor of the St. Petersburg Times who also featured some images and travel articles I had done. Another such individual was the photographer Sergei Maximishin, originally from Ukraine but who settled in St. Petersburg. I had already done some travels to the Russian far East visiting places totally off the beaten track such as the island of Sakhalin, where Chekhov wrote his book Ostrov Sakhalin literally The Island of Sakhalin (in his time a sort of Alcatraz for exiled individuals under the Tsars), and also visited Lake Baikal, Irkutsk and Vladivostok apart for the legendary Trans-Siberian railway in deep Winter, which made me frequently re-imagine the scenes (though shot in warm Spain with special effects) of David Lean’s masterpiece adaptation of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago featuring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in the main roles, and the harshness of living in the Siberian Taiga from the autobiographical novella A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - very frequently, though I took it as a joke, a lot of people thought I should be some sort of spy, a foreigner running around with my camera in these less frequented places. Maximishin has photographed in all these places, his style is very much realistic, venturing on Don McCullin yet in colour, as he mostly specializes in war zone images and social aspects, far from what I usually photograph - I found his images to be some of the best from all of his contemporaries. In fact he was one of the very few photographers who got a prestigious prize in the World Press Awards. I originally found Maximishin through one of his books which I saw and bought at the Zinger bookshop in front of Kazan Cathedral. After several months I managed to locate him and he invited me to his house at the far end of Nevsky Prospekt. I remember that encounter of a few hours as a great insight - we discussed in Russian language, anything from arts, politics and culture and found we had similar curiosities and interests. Maximishin suggested, as I was in close contact with a lot of performing artists, to begin photographing them. Weeks passed onto which I turned the idea around into my head, finally deciding to jump into action.
Initially, I needed to cross the bureaucratic hurdle, and I had to do it with a very diplomatic touch - which I managed after a few attempts. I was given carte blanche by the ballet director to photograph his troupe. Up until then, I did not know much about ballet dancers, apart that I had seen several of their classics at the theatre, mainly Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Swan Lake - and it was actually the rehearsals and performances of these two classics which I would eventually photograph most. The St. Petersburg Conservatory Theatre ballet troupe, were all graduates of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Rossi Street, St. Petersburg, one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world. This Academy has an exceptionally tough selection (an account give to me by one of the students and eventually tutors there, himself a ballet star, who was originally from Finland and during Soviet times was given the possibility to be a citizen of the USSR in exchange of his original, but refused, and returned there after perestroika) where only the crème de la crème who enrol from an early age manage to complete the course and eventually become accomplished ballet dancers who would then be chosen by the theatres in the city, throughout Russia or around the world. As a curious traveller immersing myself into a new dimension, I discovered ballet and from the very moment I shot the first images my obsession with this art glorifying elegance and the human body enchanted me.
Throughout several months from the initial introduction where the dancers were all too aware a photographer was following their every step, I became a familiar figure, photographing them in all spheres of their professional lives - throughout intensive and exhaustively disciplined rehearsals, short times of repose in a relaxed atmosphere, and nerve-wracking performances. I gradually became the invisible photographer who walked in the shadows on tiptoes hiding behind curtains and props. It is thus I created some of the most intimate images, out of which most remain some of my favourites from all the reportages I did throughout the world. I believe that what we carry as photographers, is the whole package of who we are as individuals, and all of us photograph partly instinctively, in our own vision - the influences are to an extent moulded in our subconscious but are a major contributor to what catches our eyes and what we choose to immortalize in a single frame. I loved shooting ballet and the dancers for several reasons, but probably mostly because it was a major challenge, working many a time in the Caravaggesque low lights of the theatre with a handheld camera and trying to catch those magical moments which form in front of your eyes in constant metamorphosis. None of the images are posed, which partly makes this reportage unique as very few throughout the world seem to have had that privilege. I remember that after each shoot of several hours I would go home, starving and exhausted but extremely exalted with the happenings of the day. I came to understand the struggle, psychological and physical which every member of the dance troupe has to undergo; every instance is a challenge, to be performed to utopian elegance, based on the Classical Russian Ballet. These bodies, float and fly in the air as if weightless, creating a magical world in a sphere of spectacle, power and elegance. This March I was walking in drab weather throughout the streets of the historical centre of Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain, and my mood changed to great joy when I came across a poster featuring a prima ballerina I recognized instantly as she was one of those dancers I had photographed back then.