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The Dancer With a Photographer's Eye

Donald Bradburn was in the unique position of documenting ballet's stars and taking part.

July 15, 2001|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The year was 1956. Donald Bradburn, then 15, remembers standing in front of a hardware store in the small Central California town of Visalia, watching color TV for the first time through the shop window. It was a live performance of the ballet "Sleeping Beauty," danced by the Sadler's Wells company. At that moment, he decided dance would be his life.

In fact, Bradburn not only would become a dancer, choreographer, teacher and set and costume designer, he would also photograph most of the legendary dancers of the second half of the 20th century. And the photography portion of that career would begin almost immediately: A little later that year, sitting in the orchestra at a Fresno auditorium, Bradburn took a photo of Cuban star Alicia Alonso on tour with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Now the part-time photographer has mounted a show, "Donald Bradburn: Ballet in Los Angeles--A Moment in Time," 60 photographs culled from his thousands of images. The exhibition, in the gallery at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, coincides with BalletFest 2001, a celebration of professional ballet in L.A., now in its second season at the Luckman.

Dressed casually in shirt and slacks, his ruddy face framed by a thick head of gray hair, Bradburn sifts through stacks of proof sheets, old programs and boxes of negatives in the special collections department of the UC Irvine library, the repository of his archives. His journey has been long and varied, but fundamentally rooted in dance.

Bradburn left his hometown, Lindsay, Calif. (population: 5,000), to attend UCLA, where he was an art and theater major. As UCLA only offered modern dance then, Bradburn also enrolled at the American School of Dance in Los Angeles, founded and run by Eugene Loring. Loring was one of American Ballet Theatre's original dancers in the 1930s, and choreographed an American dance staple, "Billy the Kid." In the mid-'60s, he founded UCI's dance department. Bradburn studied a wide range of dance at Loring's school, including ballet and show dance.

"I was a shy, small-town boy. Mr. Loring saw something in me that I didn't. He saw me as dark and sultry and cast me in 'Carousel.' He also gave me a chance to design sets for some of his productions, as I was interested in the visual aspects of art, theater and painting."

Bradburn was on scholarship with Loring from 1959 to 1962, while still attending UCLA. Short of earning his degree, however, Bradburn began touring in a production of "West Side Story," one of 40 musicals--mostly produced in Southern California or on regional tours--in which he would perform. In 1967, he was also the youngest dancer cast in the film "Funny Girl."

Continuing his Hollywood trajectory, Bradburn hoofed on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" television show, a gig he had for nearly five years. "I would take a camera to the set [and] photograph. The PR department sent some photos to Dance magazine and [then-editor] Bill Como paid me $5 a photo," he recalls with a laugh.

Bradburn has since published more than 350 photos in Dance magazine, but he never gave up dancing and other work for full-time professional photography. In much the same way that he shot on the set of television shows, Bradburn's access came from being part of the scene. His connections got him into rehearsals and backstage, he shot at performances and in classes.

In the 1970s, at age 35, he faced with a difficult decision. He had an offer to dance with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century and opportunities to move into choreography and staging in commercial dance. Figuring his dancing days were numbered and the latter was a better career move, he began choreographing lavish floor shows in Reno, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, among them, singer Bobbie Gentry's act at the Sands Hotel.

The menu from her dinner show, open amid the memorabilia on the library table, features gefilte fish for $1.20 and prime rib for $17.50. Nestled beside photos of a leaping Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Hollywood Bowl, this seems an odd juxtaposition but typical of Bradburn's career.

"Baryshnikov was so clean," Bradburn says of the photo he shot with a Nikon 500-millimeter zoom lens that is featured in the exhibition. "What I'm looking for in photographing ballet is the peak point of action. I know choreography and music and I know they're going to hit that move on cue."

Bradburn snagged numerous peak points of action in the '70s and '80s, when ABT had regular seasons here, and many of his exhibition shots are from that era. There is a photo of Alexander Godunov with Martine van Hamel in "Swan Lake," as well as one of Godunov teaching at UCI. A photo of Rudolf Nureyev, whose original partner in "Raymonda" was Cynthia Gregory, is seen dancing with Gelsey Kirkland, a rare pairing, and one that immediately transports the viewer back in time.

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