Beauty in the Eye of the Photographer
You see his work all over Prague these days – on large posters in the metro, at tram stops, in front of the National Theatre, even supersized on the sides of trams. Yet you may not stop to think how these beautiful posters for Sleeping Beauty traveled from an original idea in a photographer’s mind all the way to their ultimate destination – whether throughout the city or as the cover on the ballet performance program you hold in your own two hands. So Opus Osm asked photographer Pavel Hejný to share his ideas and experiences, and to explain how that long journey evolves.
Opus Osm: Can you tell us something about your latest work for The National Theatre Ballet, the poster for Sleeping Beauty?
Pavel Hejný: The performance captures the fairy tale essences, and we put it on posters because we want to show people it’s a beautiful and really nice performance which they can see only in the National Theatre. No other theatre can do this, because it’s a huge performance for a lot of dancers and very expensive. That’s exactly the reason we have a national theatre — it’s an institution that can show us these performances.
Sleeping Beauty is what we call in Czech a “spectacular” — a historical work, huge, with special costumes and sets. They told me Sleeping Beauty is one of the biggest performances they have. [Note: The production premiering Mar 29-30 features all 55 dancers from the National Theatre Ballet plus eight extras, and 310 costumes.]Yet your poster for Sleeping Beauty has a warm, intimate feel, something between a photograph and a painting.
It’s something between a painting and a picture, it’s on the edge between. We decided it must be little like Velasquez, like a classic master of art.
How were you chosen to do the poster? Did the National Theatre contact you?
I was doing the portrait for [Sleeping Beauty guest choreographer Javiér] Torrés in December. He told me he really liked working with me and he saw the picture I did for Cinderella. And he decided he wanted to do the poster with me and asked the National Theatre to ask me to do it.
Did you sit down with him and discuss possible concepts for the poster?
Yes, exactly. We spent a lot of time on Skype, sending pictures back and forth –he’s very busy, you know, traveling around the world. We met one time and then communicated through the internet.
What was your own creative process like?
I thought about it many times. I didn’t want to do it just like poses on stage with costumes, or in the studio. I wanted it more like a fairy tale, more like just one frame from the story.
I saw the (Torrés) performance on DVD, I read the text he wrote about it. He works in a philosophical way, about the performances. It’s not just about dancing. He starts out somewhere else and puts the dancing on top of it.
It’s based on choreography by (classic French choreographer Marius) Petipa, but Torrés’ is faster and shorter – he really knows the world is faster today … you can see advertising has 5 seconds for the message, and people know it this way.
Did you speak with the Sleeping Beauty principal dancer Jade Clayton?
No, no. The National Theatre decided she would be in the poster. And that’s it.I was in Istanbul in January, came back to Prague on a Sunday evening, and the next day in the morning we started shooting. But we had prepared everything before on Skype.
I’ve been doing editorial photography for One Magazine for the past year, and they helped me find the location. It’s at Chateau Loučeň, it’s like 100 km from Prague.
What about the props in the poster – the couch Aurora sleeps on, the rose at her feet. Did you have all those ideas already set?
No, I had a different idea. But we saw the couch, and we saw the space. I had brought like 100 kg of lighting and technical equipment with me, and finally I put the girl in front of the window, we pulled the couch over to the window, and I used only available light, it’s all natural.
The shoot took 3 hours. They told me three days before that Jade had a rehearsal at 3 o’clock, so I had to shoot fast. That’s usual in these days. Everybody has to shoot fast.
What did you do to make it look like a painting?
I put filters in the computer image, using colors I like.
Did you have to go through a certain approval process?
Yeah, sure. We were doing this process for days with Javiér because he… every time I sent something to him, he called me on Skype, and told me, like: I want this … make this smaller … this — make this darker. He is focused on a lot of details. He’s really well-focused on everything. He really likes every detail, he’s really a perfectionist in everything.
But he really is a strong person. He has like an aura – a shining, which you can see.
[In a separate interview with Opus Osm, we put it to choreographer Javiér Torrés: What is it like to work with Pavel Hejný? “I love that man!” he exclaimed. “He's sensitive, open – he has a serenity, a calmness ... We did the photograph, and there were a hundred little corrections that had to be made – a hair out of place, things like that – and finally after two or three weeks of intensive work it was done. But then I found one more little thing that needed to be corrected, and I thought, 'I can't ask Pavel again! He'll send me to hell!' But finally I called him and said, 'Listen, I'm sorry, but there's one more correction. Can you do it?' And Pavel just said, 'It has to be perfect, doesn't it?'”]
How did working with a perfectionist shape or change your work?
It was nice. It’s always good for the work if you have different points of view. I see it like a photographer, he sees it like his story, in one picture. So cooperation from different points of view always works.
So that’s it, that’s the last step?
It’s on the poster, on trams, in advertising, the program of course, Facebook, the National Theatre website and magazines … And that’s the end for me. Now the poster is ‘leaving’ all by itself.
We’ll shoot gestures the day after tomorrow. Javiér wants to print some of the gestures [traditional hand movements of ballet that help mime the story] in the program, and also we want to do a flipbook for children. Because some of the gestures are moving, you can’t just take a picture of it. So we will do a flipbook with like 25 photos of one gesture, and you can flip the pages quickly to make the pictures “move.”
Has that been done before?
No, never. Because it’s like a translation for the people because you have these gestures in every classical ballet to show some dances. Javiér wants to have it in the program to show the people what they mean. Like the language of ballet, yeah.
So we will shoot them Friday and then I will shoot the performance during the rehearsals. I can’t shoot during the performance because it’s noisy. We have three rehearsals with costumes, lighting, and everything, and then two main rehearsals.
Shooting ballet dancers isn’t like shooting fashion: You can’t pose the dancers in mid-air or in motion. Do you need special equipment to shoot ballet?
No, but the most important thing is the quality lenses, with a really open aperture. Sometimes there’s a problem because of really low light in the theatre. Once I was shooting with lighting only from a projector and it was [he groans] — soooo dark … .
But you always find some interesting points there. To work in the theatre you quickly learn to recognize what you can and can’t do, what you have to do.
Did you take classes in theatrical photography and lighting?
I’ve been a theatre photographer for six years, I started at 19. I’m still studying at UMPRUM, the University of Applied Arts, Architecture, and Design, but there aren’t any classes on it. It’s all from my own experience.
[Mr Hejný also started shooting fashion photography about a year-and-a-half ago, using the fashion designs of a student at his university. For the past year he's also been shooting editorial art for the magazine, and for the National Theatre, Nová Scéna (The New Stage) and State opera dancers.]
Is it different, working with fashion models compared to dancers?Yeah, sure, because professional models know how to pose – they really know exactly how they have to look, and turn, and what is best for them. But it’s not natural.
But with ballet dancers there is beauty in every motion; it’s not super-posing but it’s more natural and more quiet. You can see that it just comes from them because they have different motions in their life, because they started learning them from childhood.
So should models take ballet lessons?
[He laughs. “Yeah.”] No, it’s not about lessons, it’s about stretching, it’s about the theatrical effect in their life. The dancers have it, and the models are just posing.
Of course, a dance company wants the photos of its dancers to be completely, technically perfect. But sometimes that can make a picture cold and rigid, not energetic, very posed. It’s different when dancer is ‘caught’ dancing. Or … what do you think?
Yeah, sometimes. It’s because the ballet has special poses and they must be taken perfectly. Sometimes you can take something in between, it’s more natural, more energy, but it’s not ballet. It’s something in between, like the children are jumping around the fire.
In ballet, everything must be perfect and they’re really strictly checked. It’s publicity for them. The PR manager, the ballet master, the dancers all check the pictures. They’ll take the pictures if the poses aren’t perfect. Sometimes it happens.
I’m a photographer and they’re the professional dancers. So I have to agree with them.
Do you think a choreographer’s nationality influences his point of view?Yeah, sure. Javiér is Mexican, so he’s full of energy and puts energy into every part of his work. That’s the shine, the Spanish fire, Mexican fire, like the sun going through him. You can feel it in the performance.
It’s really nice.
Do you want to say a few closing words on Sleeping Beauty?
I think it will be wonderful. It will be different, just nice, like in old ways, a fairy tale, but with choreography, music, the set, costumes, everything perfect.
This is just a way to show how beautiful is ballet. — oo
Note: You can read about the National Theatre’s creating of Sleeping Beauty by clicking on the black Re:Source tab at the top of this page.
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: All photos by Pavel Hejný, except the photo of Pavel Hejný by Miroslav Setnička, and the portrait of Javiér Torrés by Flavio Bizzarri. Photos at top and third from the bottom by Pavel Hejný for Esprit LN magazine.