‘Dancers Among Us’ captures moments of unexpected grace

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic October 19, 2012

Jordan Matter is selling dreams in his book. And he’s channeled Jerome Robbins to do it.

It’s not just the high-kicking legs in heels that bring Broadway to mind in the photo book “Dancers Among Us” (Workman Publishing, $17.95). It’s the sense of emotional release. In his shots of dancers in flight on sidewalks and city streets — excitable superheroes among us — Matter has produced a series of mini-musicals, frozen in time but full of energy.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Subtitled “A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday,” his book frames those moments in life when feelings are too intense for words. Those times when, if you’re watching them fictionalized on a stage in a darkened theater, the singing and dancing take over.

In a picture titled “Big Day,” a beaming bride-to-be in her underwear and veil vaults through a bridal shop as if she’d just flown out of the white satin gown her maid of honor is holding. You can almost hear Natalie Wood trilling “I Feel Pretty.”

But this isn’t the only shot that brings the clean urban polish of “West Side Story” to mind. In “Dinner for Two,” a couple marches hand-in-hand past a Seattle fish market like a pair of Rockettes, flinging legs to the sky. One of them clutches a red snapper by its tail, managing to give the dead fish a little romantic pizazz.

Before the idea of a book came to him, Matter, who began as a portrait photographer, had been shooting dancers for his website. Word travels fast in the dance world, and he soon had requests from performers around the country who wanted to work with him. Most of the pictures in the book were shot in New York, but not all. Chong Sun, a member of the Washington Ballet Studio Company, is shown rocketing through the air in front of the Capitol. He’s being yanked across the street by his mother, who’s striking a perfect pose of rigid determination.

The backstory is that Chong’s mother had just arrived from Beijing to watch her son perform in “The Nutcracker.” When the two showed up to meet Matter at Union Station — and both were wearing orange shirts — the photographer saw the makings of a family drama. A father of two young children, Matter wanted to capture the desperation a little boy might feel as his mother marches away in anger.

So when the traffic cleared, Chong began to jump. And jump.

“I had to jump, like, 100 times,” Chong said. “The photo is great, but it was painful. The ground was really hard, and it was winter, and I had to take off my coat, and every time I landed it was painful.” Proof sheets along the margin of this page document the missteps.

“It was an almost impossible shot to do,” Matter acknowledges.

Rachel Bell knows something about an impossible shot. Enthralled with Matter’s website, the Dance/USA communications specialist and occasional dancer agreed to drape herself over the muzzle of a cannon poking into empty space on Baltimore’s Federal Hill. The photo shows her on her back, arching over the cannon’s tip with her long hair and short dress fluttering. One leg is cranked up to the sky. She looks like a human pinwheel, just one deep breath away from plunging into the void. The photo is titled “Surrender.”

“I thought it was a little crazy,” she says of Matter’s idea. Going along with it was the initial act of surrender, especially since it was a 100-degree day in mid-summer, and the cannon was burning into her back.


An image titled "Joy" from "Dancers Among Us." Pictured is Evan Ruggiero in New York, N.Y. (Jordan Matter/Jordan Matter)

“You try to breathe and relax and get your leg up as high as you can,” Bell says. “I’m sweating ridiculously.”

But she couldn’t let go as much as Matter wanted, so he grabbed a big man from the crowd that had gathered to watch. The guy didn’t need much persuasion to crouch out of camera range and hold onto the leg of a beautiful woman. With her safety entrusted to a complete stranger, Bell inched closer to the edge and Matter got his shot.

“As a dancer, you’re used to pushing yourself for that line of beauty,” Bell says. “So I went for it — and I trusted that from his angle it looked good.”

That’s exactly the self-reinforcing dynamic at work in this book. Dancers will do just about anything for the sake of looking good. In a photo titled “Counter Balance,” an especially bendy young woman is sprawled in a deep backbend across a ledge in a butcher shop, just under the hanging salamis, bookended by plates of pastrami on rye. (She’s reaching back to grab one.) I like this for its weird, suggestive cool.

Mostly, “Dancers Among Us” offers innocence, page after page of gorgeous, straightforward exhilaration in flesh and bone. Its childlike view of the world is deliberate. Matter got started on this path three years ago after watching his toddler son immersed in play and wishing he could see the world through his child’s eyes.

“We speed through so much without appreciating the moment,” Matter says recently, while heading to his studio on New York’s Upper West Side. “But what I saw was my son stopping on the moment. He was so enraptured by it. I thought, if I could just tap a modicum of that, my life would feel so rich because I would be living it. The phrase ‘be alive’ popped into my head.”

About a week later, a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company got in touch with Matter for some portraits. He suggested Matter watch him perform first, and invited him to a Taylor show at New York’s City Center. Matter, whose knowledge of dance began and ended with “The Nutcracker,” found himself sucked in by the electric personalities of the Taylor dancers and the mysteries and skin-tingling buoyancy of such modern-dance works as “Esplanade.” He was an instant abandonnee.

“It all came together,” he says. “What I found interesting is they were telling stories. I couldn’t necessarily always follow them, but I could see that stories were being told. They were embodying that very thing I had hoped to find: the visual embodiment of the celebration of life.”

So Matter, who had no experience in dance photography, started shooting Taylor dancers on the streets of Manhattan. They were game: “I would imagine it and they would do it,” he says.

A park bench with a few people sitting on it prompted this:

“I wonder if you could jump up and look like you’re seated above them?” he asked Michelle Fleet. She did, crossing her legs like a Buddha in midair. He could only take about four shots “because the people got up and left.”

Got up and left?

“Yeah, surprisingly.” He laughs. “I guess they’d seen enough.” The result: the photo “Rise Above It All,” in which Fleet in her flip-flops is floating on a wave of prana.

So it went, Matter’s shots a balance of serendipity, skill and dancer adrenaline. He shot countless other scenes, and the company hired him to take publicity stills for its recent season at Lincoln Center. The project ballooned. It’s still continuing at dancersamongus.com.

“There is beauty in so many different elements of our lives that we aren’t seeing,” he says. “A moment when two people cross the street and look at each other” — as he re-created in a shot called “Double Take” — “it’s beautiful, and it actually exists. These things are real, they really happen.”

But Matter isn’t the only one changed by this project. After working with him on several shoots, Bell decided to quit her day job and devote herself full time to dancing. She landed a role on a cruise line — doing musical theater, fittingly enough — and is headed to the South Pacific.

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