Juggling work and motherhood is difficult in most professions, but it can be especially tricky for ballerinas, whose careers depend on maintaining lithe, limber bodies. In Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers, photographer Lucy Gray documents the lives of three dancers in the world-class San Francisco Ballet who became pregnant and had children at the pinnacle of their careers.
In shimmering black-and-white, the photographs offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at the lives of professional dancers: they depict them not as impossibly graceful pirouetting fairy princesses, as they might appear on stage, but as fully human, responsible for changing diapers like the rest of us. In one photo, a tiara-wearing ballerina makes a goofy face while pinching her son’s nose; in another, she stretches at the barre while her infant sleeps in a carseat on the floor. The images challenge “negative, unfounded beliefs about ballerinas” that Gray herself held before embarking on this project: “As a proud feminist,” Gray writes in the book’s introduction, “I viewed them as self-centered and self-destructive–chain smokers who drove themselves to maintain the skinny bodies of little girls.” She saw these dancers as “part of a culture that glorified sacrifice as essential to the artistic process.”
These beliefs changed in the fall of 1999, when Gray met Katita Waldo, a ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet, while shopping at a local market. Waldo was carrying her infant; Gray was with her -year-old son. Gray was intrigued by the way Waldo’s skin seemed to glow under her halo of red hair. “I ignored everything I thought I knew about ballerinas and opened myself to discovering the reality of her life,” Gray writes. She asked Waldo to participate in a long-term photographic and interviewing process that would explore how motherhood impacted her life as a dancer.
Through Waldo, Gray met two other dancers at the San Francisco Ballet who’d recently had children, Tina LeBlanc, and Kristin Long. They all agreed to be a part of her photography project, which lasted 14 years.
The images offer a theatrical look at the challenges new mothers face in professions of all stripes. “Not only does having a baby increase the possibility of injuries, it raises a host of anxieties [for a ballerina]–that while she is on leave she might be altogether forgotten and replaced,” Gray writes. These anxieties are particularly acute for ballerinas, whose physical appearance is essential to being cast by her company’s artistic director (usually male). “Their careers represent one of the toughest possible situations for a working mother,” Gray writes. Still, these are anxieties felt by the tens of millions of working mothers in this country, from CEOs to waitresses.
The experiences of Gray’s subjects ultimately offer women encouragement on this front. “What none of us involved in this project could have anticipated is that all three ballerinas improved as dancers after they had children,” Gray writes. Local newspaper critics raved: “Tina LeBlanc is dancing like gangbusters since her return from maternity leave.” Post-pregnancy Long was called “brilliant,” Waldo a “marvel.” They all felt rejuvenated by their first breaks from dancing since they were toddlers.
For the ballerinas, motherhood put dancing in perspective: “I wasn’t saving a life. I was entertaining people. I could see that after I had my son, Marinko,” LeBlanc said. It enhanced their creative expression–as New Yorker critic Hilton Als writes in the book’s poetic foreword (which consists of one sentence stretched over three pages), Gray’s subjects, in their tutus and tiaras, convey an “openness of expression that’s italicized by the openness of expression one sees in the dancers’ children, their sweet desire to emulate their mothers in their toddler-sized awkwardness.”
Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers is available for pre-order from Princeton Architectural Press here.