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Film Friday: Ballet, film photography, and lessons learned during the pandemic

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Told over the course of three eventful years, my ‘Ballet on Film’ series follows the Honolulu Classical Ballet from its pre-pandemic performances through its struggling phase of virtual and outdoor classes during the COVID-19 lockdown, ending with a triumphant return to the stage for its tenth anniversary in 2022. The photo project began as a way to celebrate ballet in Hawaii, but it grew into the intimate story of how the school evolved to keep its art and artists relevant.

‘Ballet on Film’ was shot on Kodak Portra 800 using a Yashica 635.

The thread of adaptation that’s woven into ‘Ballet on Film’ is the same thread that runs throughout my work. I had to adapt along with my subjects, and I learned many lessons in storytelling while working on this project.

The importance of not only the eyes but of the entire face

The eyes are the windows to the soul: that may be true, but for a photographer the mouth and lips are equally important – and very much missed when hidden. Are the sides of the mouth slightly curled to suggest a quiet happy moment? Are the lips pushed together in a curious grin? Is the jaw tense and teeth clenched as a dancer waits in the wings?

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Masks occasionally made it difficult to capture the raw emotion the face holds.

The most difficult part of COVID has been photographing the dancers in masks. It’s not the social distancing or all the extra precautions that are still being taken during the pandemic. It’s that their faces, where so many of their emotions are displayed, are obscured.

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Despite uncertainty during the pandemic, there was still joy to be found.

Over the three years of ‘Ballet on Film,’ two of which take place during the pandemic, I tried to capture photos that still embodied the emotions of ballet, and had to think creatively. For instance, one of the standout photos from the outdoor class shows Romi Beppu, the school’s artistic director, jumping high in the air. Although her back is to us, you can feel the surge of dynamic, joyful energy rushing through the scene.

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‘Maddie Slipping on Her Ballet Flat’ shows a quiet moment as a dancer prepares.

‘Maddie Slipping on Her Ballet Flat’ is another of my favorite shots from the outdoor class. It has a different feeling. It’s quiet and intimate – a snapshot of a dancer preparing. I was able to communicate the moment without showing a face.

Beauty is everywhere

In 2021, traditional theaters were still not allowing indoor performances, so the Honolulu Classical Ballet held their spring show in a gym at the Holy Nativity School.

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The gym’s metal garage door gave photos an unexpected industrial element.

Bleachers were set up outside so parents could watch their dancers perform; they would then exit stage left to make way for the families of the next class. Where pre-pandemic performances took approximately two hours, the school’s two outdoor shows had performances scheduled for most of the day to follow social distancing restrictions. The rehearsal days too were long, but well worth it for the success of the show.

For the teachers and dancers, rehearsing and performing in a gym brought many challenges, but for myself, I loved it! Each new environment has its own unique beauty and personality – you just have to be open to it.

One of my favorite things about the gym was the vintage wood that ran along the basketball court, up along the walls and the ceiling. The earthy hues added warmth and charm to the photos taken in this space.

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Long days were kept energetic by the spirited dancers.

The structure also had metal roll-up garage doors, which added an industrial element. I love to shoot through things – windows, doors, really anything – so I used the garage doors as little windows through which to watch the dancers on the ‘side of the stage.’

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The gym used for practice provided a different and interesting new setting.

Additionally, from the moment I stepped into the space I marveled at the arches that strung together the structure. Like ribs coming together to protect the heart and lungs, their graceful lines and movement mirrored the dancers, especially the Black Swan.

It’s about relationships

I love people. I love them because of the beautiful, messy, surprising, funny, complex, tender creatures we all are. I believe people are the best part of life. Occasionally the worst, but mostly the best.

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Seeing these dancers live and train together underscored the importance of ohana.

I always hope this openness and sincerity of mine shines through when I meet a new person – or in this case a whole ballet school: all their students, teachers and families. For me, being part of the Honolulu Classical Ballet was much more than attending the classes and the shows, it was ‘ohana’ (family).

I loved seeing the older dancers (ages 13+) and hearing about their weekends. Some of them are even driving now – how quickly they grow up! I liked running around with the youngest students, the Primas (ages 3+), and giving piggyback rides to the dancers during Intro to Ballet Technique (ages 5+). I liked talking with the teachers and the parents, learning more about them and what’s happening in their lives.

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Over the project’s three years, I watched the smallest dancers grow up quickly.

I’ll never know, but I’d wager the photos we created during these three years would be very different without our relationship. The more I came to the dance studio, the more the students became accustomed to my presence. Over time, I became an afterthought and could fade into the background, which is what I wanted.

Candids are my favorite. It’s where I find the real, authentic person. So when I came to class sometimes I hardly used my camera. I’d just be there in the studio with the students so our energy could co-exist in that room. I hoped that they would become more and more comfortable with me so I could capture their genuine emotions. A good photo is as much a result of them as it is me.

“Ballet on Film” has been a team effort from start to finish, a team that includes not only the dancers and teachers you see in the photographs but all the other students, staff and families that made up the school’s world during its challenging journey.

Lisa K. Cho is a photographer based in Honolulu, Hawaii. You can learn more about this project and her other work at and on Instagram. The majority of the ‘Ballet on Film’ series was shot on Kodak Portra 800 with a 50-year-old Yashica 635.

‘Ballet on Film’ will be on exhibition at Kahala Mall in Honolulu from September 18 to October 2.

Select works from Lisa K. Cho will be on display at the Asian Archives Exhibition hosted by Brooklyn Film Camera in New York from October 6 to 31.

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