Ballerinas embody grace, strength, and dedication—all characteristics photographer Lucy Gray saw in her working mother of five. But before Gray met prima ballerina Katita Waldo, she had yet to find the perfect representation of a woman striving to “have it all.” Her new book Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers is the documentation of 15 years spent with three mothers at the height of their mentally and physically demanding careers.
We love this stunning collection of black and whites because it’s so much more than a tribute to three amazing women— it’s a model and emblem of hope for every woman who still believes something’s gotta give, and that they, unlike men, have some sort of choice to make between success and motherhood. If there is one thing Balancing Acts teaches us, it’s that the two often go hand-in-hand.
How were you originally inspired to photograph ballerinas?
When I was a child I watched my mother get her first job and support her five children for which I deeply admired her, so I was sensitized to working mothers. When I became a photographer I was interested in capturing the experience of working mothers. But I had a hard time doing so. I happened to meet a ballerina, Katita Waldo, in the market. She was with her three day old son, James. And though I knew almost nothing about ballet dancers, I knew I wanted to photograph her and her son. I wrote a proposal to do so and she accepted and told me that there were two other prima ballerinas at the company who were also new mothers – Tina LeBlanc and Kristin Long. They, too, wanted to participate in the project.
After working closely with these women from 1999 to 2013, what kind of relationship did you form with them and their families?
It is both personal and professional. To keep the project on point I never met the ballerinas without my camera in hand. I only take a camera with me in professional settings so it kept me on task. Of course we talked a great deal personally but I recorded interviews with them that we all knew were being done for the book. There is a formal, professional element to our relationship still because we were making a project together. Also, they understood that I was taking a different kind of picture than they were used to. I was trying to get at their worldview, their pressures and successes personally and professionally and sometimes those overlapped.
So Kristin Long is given the ten minute call before she is to go on stage and she pumps milk. Ballerinas need to get rid of fluids before they go on stage so there are little buckets backstage to put kleenex in. Having to express milk is even more important than blowing your nose before you are in front of an audience. And yet you can see the joy on Kristin’s face when she is doing that in her dressing room. She loved to have to do both jobs and you can see that in so many ways. I had to think about that always.
What would you say was the hardest part or moment in this project?
I had started the project imagining it would be to make shows of the pictures and a book. SFB let me take pictures there because they wanted a book. They gave me a two year contract. I thought that would be enough time to find a publisher for this story that had never been told before. But that did not happen. The ballet said my time was up. I called on the three publisher’s I knew. The first one who published the most ballet books in this country and who was a highly respected editor told me that women had to choose between work and having children. I was shocked. The next two publishers said they couldn’t sell a book of black and white photographs. I kept photographing the ballerinas and they kept allowing me to. This meant I hung out in their dressing rooms before and after performances or when they were rehearsing alone in studios. In 2005 I had an agent. She took the project to 25 publishers who turned it down. They all thought the only audience for the book would be the three dancers who were in it. When she gave up, that was my lowest moment in the project. I told her I had heard from everybody that 35 publishers was the magic number for a first book. But she said, “No.” I cried for three weeks. Then I thought, I have to keep going. I don’t have a choice. I don’t think I talked with the ballerinas about any of this. They are dedicated women and that is the most important element in all they do. They never questioned me. In 2013 I went to a portfolio review and met five publishers. The first four said what all the others had said in 2005. But then I sat down with Sara Bader at Princeton Architectural Press and she just got it. She saw what I did – that these were exceptional women who had achieved something that would resonate with working mothers; that this pocket of life in ballet might have meaning to anyone in the circumstance of raising a child and supporting him or her with a job.
Why do you feel this series is important right now?
I think it has been important since the beginning of time. I think it was important when I was a child and I think back now to all my friends whose mothers worked. I waited to have children because I wanted to establish a career so that it couldn’t be taken from me. Then I only became a photographer after I had children. When I started the project in 1999 I thought it was important. Right now, people seem to be interested in the subject of working mothers and more open to discussing it as a fact of life instead of characterizing it in some special light. There are nearly 75 million working mothers in this country that are not all having an impossible time. Half the workforce in this country is comprised of women. Why not support them? Can we accept that they are valuable in the workforce? Can we accept that women have children, especially young women who need to support them? It feels like a moment when the culture might listen to new possibilities. My hopes are high. I believe in ambition.
Photos via Lucy Gray