In the world of modern dance, the promotional photographs for an upcoming production are often taken months before the piece is fully choreographed, not to mention before sets are built, lighting is designed, and costumes are made. So it was something of a luxury when photographer RJ Muna and choreographer Liss Fain met in the studio to create images for Liss’s Fall 2018 production, A Recomposition: I Don’t Know and Never Will.
The piece was initially performed in March and re-choreographed for the fall season.
“The shoot for the original piece had been about letters and communication and the relationships you form through letter writing. The concept of soil didn’t come to me until later on in the piece. The first photo shoot was really more about letters, and the piece ended up being about digging down into your past and into your history. That first shoot was wonderful, and the photos are stunning, but they didn't really represent what the piece ended up being about,” explained Liss.
The recomposition is rooted in soil, which represents history and the fabric of life. Liss brought five huge bags of soil to the studio for the shoot. On stage and in the photographs, the dancers are in the soil, they are connected to the soil, not just hovering above.
RJ has been shooting for Liss Fain Dance for a decade. The best relationships between photographer and dance company are often built over a long period of time. Dance is about movement and elevation, the apex of a leap that happens in 1/1000th of a second. Photography is a static interpretation of a moment so fleeting, it’s often imperceptible to the naked eye. The result of the two together is greater than the sum of its parts, but to know when to click the shutter, the photographer has to understand the language of the choreographer.
“I’m shooting a dialogue of movement. Every choreographer speaks a slightly different language, and the movement they make is unique—in style and look. I have to stay within that language, as broad as it may be, in order to portray what that company’s movement is about,” explained RJ.
One choreographer may have an inward type of movement, and another may use a lot of large extensions. The photographs have to be consistent with the language of the choreographer and company and the emotion of the piece.
The language learning curve goes both ways. “Over time, I’ve learned to understand what kind of information RJ wants from me. When I first started working with him, he had to educate me about the sorts of things to look for when creating a static image of something that's in essence about movement.”
The process of shooting modern dance is almost directly opposite the process of creating commercial work—in a commercial project, almost nothing is left to chance. The comp and the layout have already been defined and approved. By the time RJ and his team get to work, they are executing what's been presented in the comp, and the only room for variation is something that will enhance the original idea.
With modern dance, often, they’re working from a concept with a relatively wide latitude of how it could be interpreted. However, RJ notes this is somewhat particular to modern dance since classical ballet is made up of several precise moves; when it comes to Swan Lake, the basic choreography doesn’t change.
“I love getting into the ideas and the concepts behind the piece, and I think RJ enjoys talking and thinking about that kind of thing. Sometimes if I don’t have a specific image, but I do have a clear concept of what it is, RJ will have an idea about how to realize it visually,” said Liss.
In the case of A Recomposition, Liss had a very clear idea of what the piece was about and how the images should look, and it didn’t hurt that RJ had seen the March performance.
“I usually try to come in with some sort of idea of the movement that would be appropriate, but RJ has his own ideas too. The dancers are so good so that if he or I suggest something to them, they just run with it. For example ‘fall into the soil,’ that was one of the images we used. ‘Stretch as wide as you can,’ ‘dig down into the soil’—it’s a very loose prompt to give somebody, but it represented some of the movements that were in this piece,” she said.
Ultimately, dance photography does not seek to precisely replicate a piece, but to evoke the emotion of the idea.
“The photographs have to represent a concept and not just a pretty person dancing—that’s one of the reasons I like working with RJ, and I think he likes working with me. These photographs are really my absolute favorites. I really love them.”