Street Art Meets Balanchine In JR’s Giant Portrait For New York City Ballet

The street artist brings “the power of paper and glue” to the ballet.

French street artist JR works on slums the way other artists work on canvas. Since 2005 he has wheat-pasted his trademark black-and-white portraits throughout crime-devastated favelas in Brazil, on industrial stretches in Israel and Palestine, and in cities like Juarez, Mexico, and Oakland, California.


He’s worked in less gritty places, too, but likely none quite as ritzy and as rarefied as New York City’s Lincoln Center, the site of his latest installation. Commissioned by the New York City Ballet for its second Art Series, which ropes in contemporary artistic talent, JR wheat-pasted a gargantuan photo of 80 ballet dancers onto the floor and windows of the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch theater. Zoom in and each dancer appears life-sized, curiously curled up next to crumpled paper. Zoom out, however, and they collectively form a giant eye. This layered perspective–where you experience equal, but different, visual drama up close and far away–echoes the work of 20th-century choreographer and New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine. Balanchine used his dancers to fill the stage with hypnotic patterns that made a performance every bit as compelling for viewers in the back row as for those with head-on views of the grand jetés and pirouettes in the first row.

The project is designed to draw new, presumably younger patrons to the New York City Ballet, at a time when many arts organizations have seen their audiences gray. “The moment I started pasting photos in the street I realized the power of paper and glue; the power of an image in the street and how people would react,” JR says in a video posted on City Ballet’s website. “I was curious to bring them into my universe, using the texture, the paper.”

The next two City Ballet performances will be on February 7 and 13, at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.