ClampArt, a small gallery in Chelsea, is currently presenting Rachel Papo’s “Desperately Perfect”, a photography exhibit of students studying at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Drawing upon her experience studying ballet in Israel for nine years as a child, Papo delicately reveals dancers on a quest for perfection. A young boy, Ilya, gazes at himself in the mirror with his arms held and legs crossed in 5th position. He is not admiring himself, but rather evaluating and scrutinizing – always on the lookout for what needs improvement. Fifteen-year-old Katya pulls her left leg up to her ear with her right hand. She, too, appears to be observing her reflection in the mirror, without displaying pain or frustration. This stretching is part of a constant routine – one that will hopefully lead to a professional career at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Beneath the dancers’ stoic expressions is an obvious emotional struggle to be the best, to overcome criticism, and to achieve the impossible. Furthermore, Papo’s photographs suggest the exhaustion and loneliness of her subjects, much more so than the enjoyment and happiness that dancing hopefully brings to their lives. In a Sunday Times article about the Vaganova, an 18-year-old student admits, “I don’t have any real friends at the academy. On stage, they’re rivals.” Rather than glorifying the road to becoming a prima ballerina, Papo’s photographs are honest portrayals of young dancers training in a furiously competitive environment. She beautifully captures the emotional complexities of her subjects. No matter how much they yearn to succeed, the sad reality is that only a few will make it.
“Desperately Perfect” by Rachel Papo, on display through March 14, 2009
521-531 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM
all photos by Rachel Papo, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2007