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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Dance like everyone’s watching

by Penelope Grist, 8 September 2020

Brooke Lockett, Heidi Martin, Karen Nanasca, Halaina Hills; New York, 2012 Lisa Tomasetti
Brooke Lockett, Heidi Martin, Karen Nanasca, Halaina Hills; New York, 2012 Lisa Tomasetti. Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake

‘You’ve made me so happy!’ exclaimed the truck driver. Before his eyes, four Swan Lake cygnets had repeatedly leapt into synchronised suspension above a pedestrian crossing at the corner of Lexington and Fifth Avenues in New York City. The enthusiastic truckie had helped Australian photographer Lisa Tomasetti hold the snarling city traffic at bay long enough for her to get the shot.

Lisa Tomasetti’s visual arts career has spanned a quarter of a century so far. She’s been exhibiting her work for over twenty years, including as a multiple finalist in the Portrait Gallery’s annual National Photographic Portrait Prize, and in its 2017-18 exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits. Tomasetti has also worked as a stills photographer on numerous film and television productions, including Shine, Star Wars Episode II, The Sapphires, and Cleverman. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also spent fourteen years as the official tour photographer for major dance companies, having visited Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco with The Australian Ballet, and accompanying Bangarra Dance Theatre on their North American tour. As tour photographer, Tomasetti captures stills from performances as well as documenting behind-the-scenes action such as rehearsals: ‘The concentration, the dancers’ complete focus and discipline – I love to frame that’.

And so emerged an inspired side-hustle. On the phone earlier this year, Lisa explained that Dancers in the Streets, her personal project whilst on tour with The Australian Ballet, began with ‘a couple of cygnets outside the Paris Metro in 2006’. With Australian Ballet Director David McAllister’s permission, she started taking the dancers out into the cities, often working inside half-hour gaps in rehearsal schedules to scout for locations within ten to fifteen minutes of the theatre. On the street, despite being in costume and moving with the precision that is the language of their art, the dancers were not in character. The resulting images are behind-the-scenes portraits capturing the individual identities of the artists.

The shoots saw the photographer, laden with gear, and the dancers – in full costume hidden under coats – quickly pile into a taxi for their off-script adventure. For Lisa, with her film and TV set experience, the instinctive, rapid-response sessions came naturally. Suddenly in a square or alley, on a bridge or median strip, the dancers emerged from the taxi and began executing sinuous leaps for the camera. ‘They were brave’, Lisa reflects. ‘Some are quite shy, but it was freeing for them and freeing for me.’ In a square and an alley in Beijing, dancers in exquisite blue gracefully ascend, bearing smiles of genuine exhilaration. For the onlookers, it’s a heady mix of delight and bewilderment as the mini flash mob appears en pointe.

Ballet is a complex, codified system of movement originating in the Italian Renaissance, before flourishing in 17th century France. Precision and strength enable choreographic feats that defy gravity and epitomise control. On stage, the company moves as one body. For Lisa, the juxtaposition of urban disorder and the dancers’ refinement generates a beautiful incongruity. The series sees the quotidian transformed into something magical. It draws to mind the last stanza of 19th century French poet Charles Beaudelaire’s ‘Hymn to Beauty’ from The Flowers of Evil:

‘Angel or siren, spirit, I don’t care,
As long as velvet eyes and perfumed head
And glimmering motions, o my queen, can make
The world less dreadful, and the time less dead.’

Lisa’s approach to exploring her art in these 21st century urban landscapes feels utterly remote from the 19th century modernist perspective of the flâneur, to again reference Baudelaire. The poet’s vision of this ‘passionate spectator’ of city life still strolls anonymously and narcissistically into the lives of art history students (just between us, I always thought the flâneur was a bit creepy!) In Dancers in the Streets, Lisa not only observes, she takes action. She intervenes in the life of these cities to create and share moments of unexpected, transcendent beauty.

In a Beijing square and at Shinagawa Station, Tokyo, the crowds flow around or beyond the dancer. The relentless, reality of crowded life makes the spirit of the miraculous more intense, more enlivening. This unappreciated wonder has become that much more palpable in recent images of streets rendered deserted during the global pandemic. It’s a reminder: something astonishing, beyond your imagination, can happen at any time.

Lisa’s vision of the city in these works is consistent with sociologist Richard Sennet’s definition: ‘a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’. You can ‘listen’ to these portraits: the orchestra makes way for the incidental soundtrack of the city – the melody of traffic, voices, construction; the crescendo of car horns. Out in the street, the public become extras on these impromptu sets; their serendipitous presence and expressions generate open-ended narratives. Some become, maybe in spite of themselves, actors in a lovely cinematic moment – the most charming examples being the policemen of Beijing and New York, their slightly awkward stances a delicious counterpoint to the lithe, liquid figures soaring in from stage left.

The thought that dancers from within the fantastic interior world of the ballet’s stage might move among us in the crowded streets reminds me of the Hollywood classic Roman Holiday. A European Princess, Ann (Audrey Hepburn), takes some time off from being a princess, slipping out onto the streets of Rome. She spends a day experiencing life as an ordinary citizen and falling in love with journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Briefly escaping the bonds of grandeur, she moves undetected through the streets. ‘At midnight,’ Ann winningly jokes, ‘I'll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper’. ‘And that will be the end of the fairy tale’, comes Joe’s overly serious reply. In the Tomasetti film, everyone is transformed by Princess Ann’s presence, even when they do not know it.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, New York, and outside a Beijing station, members of the public stand back, create a stage, become an audience. The dancers float and the geometry of the moments is perfect – their precision brings a focal point and unifying order to the landscape. The shoots drew applause, laughter, murmurs of astonishment. Souvenirs, or perhaps proof of miracle experienced, were captured with phones. In all of these portraits, Lisa and the dancers suddenly, unexpectedly, pull an emotional, immersive experience into an impersonal public place. She is publishing the series in a book in late 2020. These works do something other than tell a story, make an argument or explicate a theme; they embody a spirit that propels imaginations. And in this, like her subjects, Lisa defies the gravity of our lives and times.

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