Written by Elyse Moody.
Photo — Act IV Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre — courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor.
In 1996, a young member of the American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet persuaded several of her fellow dancers to meet her on their day off at the side of the Metropolitan Opera House, where ABT has its annual eight-week season. She brought back issues of Dance Ink with her to the rendezvous point and handed them out to her six friends, who posed with the handsomely printed periodicals in their street clothes—Adidas and corduroy blazers and jeans—on the ledges and in the window nooks on the side of the Met facing Damrosch Park. Their impeccable posture and pointed toes as they read and reach for the magazines give them away. The ABT dancers included Rosalie O’Connor, Clinton Luckett, John Selya, Ashley Tuttle, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Yvonne Borree, as well as NYCB soloist Arch Higgins, and ABT superstar in the making Angel Corella.
Rosalie, the ABT corps de ballet member and self-taught photographer who’d brought them all together to get the shot, for a Dance Ink photography contest, set the self-timer and snapped a black-and-white photograph. The photo won.
“Then I asked myself, ‘Now what?’” Rosalie says. Fashiontographer caught up with the still willowy, blond photographer during New York Fashion Week. That fall, after she won the Dance Ink contest, ABT invited her to partake in creating a photo gallery for its brand-new website. This involved documenting its productions, onstage and off.
But initially she said no. “I still remember where I sat when I had that conversation,” she says. “I was starting to do some nice parts, and I worried it might send mixed messages to the director. You have to be very careful.” But the dancer who invited her to try told her to think about it.
Dance had always been her first love. Rosalie began studying ballet at age four in New Orleans. When she was 12, she started taking summer classes at the School of American Ballet in New York City; her parents alternated teaching summer courses at the University of New Orleans and chaperoning her. Then, in 1985, when she was 15, she moved to the Big Apple to attend SAB full-time. She’s been a New Yorker ever since.
Rosalie’s first home in New York City was a portentous one. As a student at the School of American Ballet, she lived with the renowned dance photographer Lois Greenfield—whose specialty is “capturing dancers in the air in really precarious positions and exciting moments,” says Rosalie—and watched her two little boys in exchange for room and board.
The exposure to Greenfield’s work brought dance photography down to earth for Rosalie. Growing up, she’d collected tons of ballet books: the backstage work of Pierre Petitjean and the candids of former corps member of the City Ballet Steven Caras, for example. “It had been a passion,” Rosalie says. “I knew who all the photographers were, but I never put it together that I could combine dance with my love of photography.”
But she devoted herself to performing and continued to excel. At 17, Rosalie was hired by Mikhail Baryshnikov himself to join ABT. She would dance with the company for the next 15 years, until she was 32. But for the final six years of her dance career, she accepted the offer to start documenting her fellow dancers in rehearsal as well as big ABT productions. She got her start just before badly injuring her left foot (she would eventually have three foot surgeries over the ensuing nine months), and photography slowly became her focus. For four months on crutches, non-weight bearing, “I took pictures the entire time,” she says. “It kept me sane.”
Rosalie knew she’d made the right decision for her postdance career when she was on tour with ABT in Detroit with Apollo, featuring Guillaume Graffin and Susan Jaffe. She got back her contact sheets and saw that she actually liked a few. “That was the moment when I felt committed to this,” she says.
Then, two things happened in quick succession to cement her confidence. The New York Times ran a feature on her dual dancer-photographer work, and Amy Astley, then beauty director at Vogue, commissioned her to write and photograph a piece on stage make-up for the magazine. “That really opened a lot of doors for me,” Rosalie says.
What captured their imagination, and what makes Rosalie’s work unique, is her intimate knowledge of ballet life. Dancers and companies trust her. A sixth sense, honed by 15 years of corps de ballet experience, informs her pictures. And she has an innate sense of dancers’ love for their craft that comes through in her art.
“The dancer’s eye, that really interests me,” she says. “A lot of photographers can go to the front of the house and can get the pictures as the audience sees it. But it’s great when you have the access to be in the back, in the wings.”
Since beginning her photography career at ABT, Rosalie has shot world-famous principals such as David Hallberg and Alessandra Ferri, and worked with dance companies as diverse as the School of American Ballet, Juilliard, Boston Ballet, Rosie’s Theater Kids, Ballet Arizona, the New York City Ballet Choreographic Institute, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Dancers Responding to AIDS, Susan Marshall, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris Dance Group, and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center. She shoots rehearsals, dress rehearsals, company classes, performances (from backstage and front of house), and behind the scenes in the dressing rooms.
“What I really love is staying in this profession from another angle, where everything I know from the very beginning at age four is informing every picture that I take. It’s just this great continuation,” she says.
But the experience can be bittersweet. Some acting roles (especially Bathilde, Albrecht’s unrequited lover in Giselle) hold a special place in her heart. “When I’m photographing those roles, I do sometimes get emotional, and miss performing them,” she says.
Having that intimate experience gives her an unparalleled advantage as a photographer: “As a dancer, it’s as if I can read another language,” Rosalie says. “I can see preparations for steps or tell by the movement of the body or the music that something big is about to happen.”
And today, in addition to in-progress dance photography projects, Rosalie also runs NYC Menagerie, a pet-portraiture business. Sometimes her two passions collide. Recently, she took a friend who works at Juilliard down to Pier 45 to photograph his corgi—and she wound up shooting photo after photo of the tango dancers there. “I just got mesmerized by the tango,” she says. “It was gorgeous.”
From Lincoln Center to Pier 45, her infectious love for dance keeps growing. Stay tuned for her next big project.
Elyse Moody is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who enjoys covering books, culture, travel, science, and nature. She has written for (published and forthcoming): ELLE, ELLE.com, Creative Nonfiction, The Daily Beast, BBC Travel, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Popular Mechanics, among other publications. Elyse has undergraduate degrees in English and journalism from Washington and Lee University in the Shenandoah Valley and a master’s in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. You can view her portfolio here and follow her on Twitter.