Between Perfection and Beauty - reviewed
Between Perfection & Beauty
Book, first edition 25 copies
Design Lucy Aitchison, Harry Culy and Jane Wilcox
Bad News Books, 2019
Reviewed by Cathy Tuato’o Ross for PhotoForum
A book titled Between Perfection & Beauty sets a very high standard for itself. As an object, the volume is indeed beautiful. The blue linen cover subtly fades towards black at the bottom edge. The front features a screenprint of a pensive young man in an ornate brocade jacket whose gaze drifts left, to an unfocused elsewhere. There is no text on either cover or spine, save for a small indent of the publisher’s name on the back. The book is slim but satisfyingly heavy, reminding me of bound music manuscripts of my grandmother’s. Endpapers are a heavy cream cartridge, which contrasts in both texture and colour to the cool white satin pages that make up the body of the book.
The simplicity of design extends to the page layout. Following a spare title page are full-page photographs of young dancers, waiting, paired with blank facing pages. The first sixteen spreads have the photograph to the left (verso) which then shifts around a central blank page to the second series of fourteen spreads presenting the photograph on the right (recto). The dancers themselves are oriented towards the empty space of the facing page, so the layout suggests a kind of mirroring, despite the unbalanced number of images that might bother a perfectionist. The final two pages present a pair of texts, which sadly lose a little of their authority due to lack of thorough proofreading. The texts provide a backstory to the making of the photographs, but only hint at the photographer’s larger concept. We are told that the portraits in this portfolio were made over three days, in a corridor that led, eventually, to a stage. The event that occasioned this gathering of quiet youth in heavy stage make-up and possibly hand-made costumes is the Alana Haines Australasian Awards, which Wilcox explains to us is the “biggest ballet competition in the southern hemisphere”.
I’m very aware that most of my knowledge of ballet has been acquired through perusing coffee table glossies and children’s picture books. Wilcox, on the other hand, is an insider, both in terms of access and understanding. One of the texts is a short statement presumably penned by the photographer’s daughter, Cecilia. It recounts her feelings during the immediate lead-up to the ballet competition, describing the shifting from excitement to anxiety as she gets closer to appearing on stage, and asserts that her greatest fear was making a fool of herself. The photographic portraits of the teenage competitors show little emotion, save a few slightly lost looks. Instead they portray dancers closed even to the photographer’s gaze, leaning against the wall in a corridor, insular in their concentration and disciplined patience. Wilcox’s presence in the restricted areas, and acceptance by her subjects, does not result in a ‘behind the scenes’ essay. Instead, the photographs are made ‘between the scenes’, respectfully picturing composed bodies and waiting faces. The viewer is left knowing little more about ballet than they knew at the outset.
The dancers represented in the volume largely conform to stereotype. They are who you would expect them to be, and the lack of disruption of expectation combines with the subjects’ own stillness to create a feeling of timelessness. There is no suggestion of music, movement or interaction and so the portraits exist in the borderless ‘between’. Being Between Perfection & Beauty, however, is a much larger claim than being between practice and performance, dream and reality or simply this room and that stage. If there was a continuum, with perfection at one end and beauty at the other, what would exist in the middle ground? And, for that matter, what is perfection? What is beauty? Perhaps the title reflects Wilcox’s personal understanding of and response to ballet, or more specifically, to this gathering of young, hopeful dancers - but what she shows us is a little different.
The generally sharp focus of the camera dwells on pimples under thick foundation, unevenly applied lipstick and nude-coloured elastic. White feathers are firmly bobby-pinned to form a cap on tightly slicked blonde hair. Artificial autumn leaves, linked with green string, are stitched (or possibly glued) over a shoulder and spill down the front of a hand painted dress. Do red eyes give away earlier tears or are they simply a sign of exhaustion? There are slight shifts in scale. Some dancers are shown from hips up, others only head and shoulders. This means that gelled hair sometimes grazes the top of the physical page, some bodies are central, others are cropped. I felt that the minor variations in composition detracted from the overall clear design and the photographer’s controlled visual vocabulary. The tiniest hints of architectural detail sneak in, as a reminder that the portraits are found rather than posed.
I’m left with a feeling of aspiration that is perhaps shared by both the photographer and her subjects. The teenagers are going to dance, and will be judged. Maybe some among those, who exist in this volume in a state of suspended waiting, have gone on to give life-changing performances.
Cathy Tuato’o Ross lives in Parua Bay, Whangarei, with her partner and their four daughters, where she works from her home studio. She exhibits nationally, teaches drawing and works as a freelance writer. In 2010 she was awarded a PhD from the University of Otago.