Ballet’s eye takes on Broadway

Fans of the New York City Ballet know Paul Kolnik. But few of his admirers know that he is becoming

Fans of the New York City Ballet know Paul Kolnik. Nearly every night, during the company’s stay at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the photographer positions himself dead center in the house, capturing with his lens the apex of every movement of every dancer onstage.

But few of his admirers know that he is becoming a regular in Broadway theaters too. He is one of a handful of photographers given access to shows such as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Chorus Line” and “Hairspray.” Unlike many Broadway publicity photographers, Kolnik usually shoots during an actual show. As a result, his images reflect the vibrant nature of the live event. They also reveal the common ground that ballet and Broadway share. And it’s what both genres share that Kolnik wants to illustrate in an exhibition, “Ballet, Broadway and Beyond,” now showing at the National Museum of Dance.

“I wanted to do this exhibit because I wanted to show how New York City Ballet and Broadway feed off each other,” said Kolnik as he surveyed his framed photographs that now hang in the museum foyer. “I wanted to show how Mr. [George] Balanchine, Jerry Robbins and European classical ballet intersect with American Broadway styles. The exhibition is called “beyond,” too, because ballet and Broadway do go beyond to movies and books.”

‘Ballet, Broadway and Beyond’

WHERE: The National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

HOW MUCH: $6.50, $5 seniors and students, $3 children

MORE INFO: 584-2225 or

He points to his pictures of “West Side Story Suite,” a ballet by Jerome Robbins, inspired by his own choreography for the Broadway musical. In rehearsal, Kolnik takes a view from the back of the boys tilting on tiptoe. He juxtaposes that picture with one from the front at the same moment in a performance. Kolnik not only emphasized the peak of moment, but the progression from studio to stage. But there is more, he insists.

Pervasive influence

“This started as a musical, then a movie and then a ballet,” he said. “Then you look at these pictures from ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ with John Lithgow. It was a movie. Then a show on Broadway. Christopher Wheeldon choreographed it. He was with New York City Ballet. And if you look at the photo, you can see a little ‘Antique Epigraphs’ there. That’s a Jerry ballet. The photo just shows a step, but a variation of the step that looks like ‘Antique Epigraphs.’ It shows how much influence Mr. Balanchine and Jerry have on everything.”

The photographer sees the pattern in much of what he exhibits. For example, he points to the photographs of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” with Philip Neal and Maria Kowroski — with her leg shooting straight up as Neal pulls her close. The ballet sprang from the musical “On Your Toes,” which moved on to be a movie. Of course, it stands alone as a ballet.

While Kolnik is preoccupied with the connections among books, movies, musicals and ballets, the photos often reveal another — that between the dancers who share roles. Many of his more interesting triptychs are those that show the exact moment from the same dance, but with different dancers. Consider the images of Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son.” Kolnik presents a view of Damian Woetzel in the title role, standing and leaning against a bench as a flutter of greedy hands strip him bare. This very same pose is taken by Peter Boal, who also portrayed the part of the rebellious boy who squanders his inheritance.

More compelling are the “Apollo” images taken over decades. In one, a young Peter Martins (now the ballet’s master-in-chief) is captured in the foreground as his three muses, danced by Suzanne Farrell, Maria Calegari and Kyra Nichols, stand united with their arms extended, heads up, as if ready to serve. This same pose is struck by other well-placed muses with their Apollos, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jean-Pierre Frohlich.

Turning to Broadway

This depth of perception is keen in his photographs of the New York City Ballet, not surprising as he has turned his camera on the company for 30 years. His relationship to Broadway, by comparison, is a new venture. It began in 2003 with “Urban Cowboy,” choreographed by former City Ballet dancer Melinda Roy. That led to choreographer Susan Stroman asking him to photograph her production of “Contact.”

It soon became clear, as Stroman wrote in the book accompanying the exhibit, that Kolnik’s images are “so charged, so vital and immediate” — just like his ballet photographs. Needless to say, she asked him to photograph her other shows, such as “The Producers,” since “Paul understands what the dancer is telling him.”

More important than interpretation, said Kolnik, is capturing the “now.”

“A live performance is a visit to Brigadoon — it disappears even before we become aware of its disappearance,” said Kolnik. “We may call it magic, but if so, it is a magic created out of the human will. It is an extraordinary thing, joining time and space as partners, turning ephemeral moments into portions of eternity, and it leaves indelible traces on our hearts.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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