NEW YORK — Steven Caras never had to go through the difficult "what do I do next" period that many dancers face when they stop performing. In 1978, as a nine-year veteran of New York City Ballet, Caras acted on his longtime interest in photography and began training himself for a second career.
While he continued to dance, Caras also provided the company's press office with performance photographs. Now 35 and retired from dancing since 1983, he has become respected and successful as a ballet photographer, bringing to his work not only a cultivated observer's eye but also a firsthand familiarity with many of the dancers and ballets he photographs.
A recently issued collection of his New York City Ballet pictures, "Balanchine: Photo Album and Memoir" (Rizzoli International: $14.95, paperback), includes color performance photographs of current and recent company members as well as black-and-white shots of the late choreographer working with his dancers in rehearsal.
When Caras began taking dance photographs, he found that his insider's knowledge of the subject did not prepare him for how the ballets looked from the front of the house. "I learned so much more about performing and choreography when I started to sit out front. It's very hard to know what the ballet you're dancing looks like, even after you've rehearsed for weeks in front of a mirror," he says.
His earliest pictures were often taken, by necessity, from backstage. "I was usually warming up to be in another ballet," he recalls. "There was a time when I would go from dancing the first theme of 'The Four Temperaments,' grab my camera and shoot the other sections of the ballet from the wings."
More recently, he's been in a position to choose from various angles and levels of the auditorium, but pictures taken from the wings, he notes, offer a more intimate look at the performances. "You're literally on top of the dancers. The pictures may destroy the magic a little bit, because you see the spotlights and people watching from the side of the stage."
Mention a picture and Caras is likely to launch into a recitation of the difficulties and obstacles involved. "It's probably one of the hardest things you can do--you have limited light to work with, you're dealing with very fast movement, and when you stop the dancers, they have to look beautiful.
"It's not like photographing an athlete, where the goal is to get an exciting picture. You may have an exciting dance picture, but if the feet aren't pointed, the knees aren't straight or one eye is half-closed, it's not usable. Things have to be close to perfect, as far as the form of the body is concerned. You may have a wonderful shot of the ballerina, but if her partner looks a little funny, or the background is messy, nobody wants to use it."
When taking pictures of rapid movements, Caras may use a shutter speed as fast as 1/250th of a second. "With color, you're often shooting at a much slower speed, because of the lack of speed in the film. You have twice as much leeway when you shoot with black-and-white," he notes.
Unpredictability and an infinity of variables further complicate his work; photographing even the most familiar ballets presents a new challenge each time. "You never see the same things twice, even if the same dancer is in the same role," he remarks.
Caras may anticipate a specific image, or act spontaneously on what he sees. "There's no method in that respect. I go by my instincts--what would make a beautiful picture." When he finds something that does, it is often after much trial and error.
One picture in the Balanchine book with which Caras is especially pleased looks disarmingly simple: Merrill Ashley and Lordes Lopez, in "Concerto Barocco," are poised on toe in arabesque, forming a symmetrical design that epitomizes the ballet's abstract purity.
"I tried for two or three years to get that moment again, but I never could, and I've shot it every single time I've been there," Caras states. "It's always something--one leg is too high, or one is bent; the eyes may be closed, or the angle wrong.
"Often, I'll learn from my first shoot of a ballet. Something that looks great to the naked eye doesn't work when stopped at 1/250th of a second. Also, you can anticipate a moment, but if your time is not the same as the dancers', it makes a very funny picture."
Focusing so intently on the New York City Ballet has allowed Caras to amass a body of work that documents pivotal years in the company's history: the last five years of Balanchine's life, and the current transitional period as the company adjusts to dancing without its founder.
His special access as "one of the family" has also afforded opportunities to capture many images of Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell, two of his favorite subjects. His next book, due out in September, is a collection of Martins photos, incorporating images of Martins as performer, ballet master and choreographer.