Music Credit: “Foreric” composed and performed by Todd Barton from the EP Metascapes.
Lucy Gray: 2005, I had an agent who took the book to 25 publishing houses who turned it down. They all said the same thing; they thought the only three people in the world who would care about this book were the three prima ballerinas, who were mothers who were in the book. There are 75-- there are nearly 75 million working mothers in this country; half the workforce are women. I mean, I assumed it would be a good subject for a book.
Jo Reed: That is photographer and writer Lucy Gray talking about her book; Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers,and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
Lucy Gray is an award winning photographer whose work has been features in numerous books as well as The New York Times, The Independent, Dance Magazine, and Salon.com. Her projects with the homeless residents of San Francisco, and families facing foreclosure in the central valley of California have been seen across the United States.In 1999, a chance encounter led her to San Francisco Ballet, and the dancers who balance motherhood with the rigor of ballet. Over the course of 15 years, Gray photographed three ballerinas, all principle dancers who had children — Katita Waldo, Tina LeBlanc, and Kristin Long. Gray followed these women as they navigated motherhood and the professional dance word. Those black and white photos became Lucy Gray’s book Balancing Acts—which was published in 2015.
Fifteen years is long time to be involved with a project—but it turns out Lucy Gray had long wanted to create a series of images that would capture the experience of working motherhood. It was the subject that eluded her.
Lucy Gray: When I was ten, my parents divorced and I watched my mother, with fear and admiration, get her first job and she did then support her five children, so that 25 years later when I became a photographer I was also a mother; I was sensitized to the subject of working mothers and very interested in doing something about it. I tried taking photographs but I couldn’t get at the subject. And then I was with my friend, and we went to the market, and the friend saw someone she knew at the market, this very ethereal, almost ghostly, very beautiful-looking woman, and her three-day-old son. And the friend said to me, “Do you know who that was?” and I said, “No.” “She’s Katita Waldo who is a prima ballerina at San Francisco Ballet.” And I almost instantaneously said, “I want to photograph her.” because there I knew <laughs> I might get at what I had been trying to.
Jo Reed: Wait, wait wait – why? What was is about Katita, or dance, that made you think it would work for your project of envisioning working mothers?
Lucy Gray: Well, I love theater of all kinds, ballet too of course,- remember I was saying how difficult it was for me to get at a good photograph of a working mother. Visually, a theatrical mother, especially one that uses costumes, is ideal because when that woman is in her tutu and holding her child in his street clothes, you know that there’s a tension; there’s a visual tension, natural; there’s also the reality of the difference between his street clothes and her costume and you quickly know that that must be her child and he’s at work with her. That may not be what you’re thinking consciously but it’s endemic to the picture; it’s in-- it’s the visual expression of the situation.
Jo Reed: Lucy reached out to Katita and proposed her idea of a long-term photography project.
Lucy Gray: Katita immediately said she’d like to participate and that they were two more prima ballerinas who were mothers at San Francisco Ballet. Kristin Long and Tina Leblanc, and I then met them all at the ballet I told them, I was really going for their inner lives, their-- the way they saw the world, their personal views; that was what I was trying to get across, and the integration of their family in their working lives.
Jo Reed: Was there anything that jumped out at you about Katita, Tina, and Kristin – that made you see what enabled them to balance professional ballet and motherhood?
Lucy Gray: Yeah. It turns out that the dedication they have is really the hallmark of who they are as women. It was their dedication that made them great dancers and it was their dedication that made them great mothers. Of course, they were single-minded and when they had children that was how they found a balance in life that they found so extraordinary that gave them great joy. They all became better dancers after they had children, which surprised everyone, them, me, the company, and that showed us that doing both occupations made them better at both and that was the – that’s really the point of the book, the lesson in the book. The reason to do it is to demonstrate that for working mothers it is possible – I don’t know how many but it’s possible that the majority even are not experiencing a disaster in both arenas but are actually doing better at their working lives because they’re mothers, because they have something to do it for. The dancers were all single-minded beforehand and they were wonderful dancers but they let go of a lot of their anxiety after they had children because they had a perspective on what they were doing, so that it wasn’t the only-- wasn’t the center of the universe; the children were much more important to them then.
Jo Reed: Lucy discovered that until pregnancy and motherhood, Tina, Katita, and Kristen had literally been dancing all of their lives.
Lucy Gray: This is the tendency and this was true of my three: When they start dancing they’re three; when they are eleven they decide that’s what they want to do for a living; by the time they’re fourteen or fifteen they’re doing it. So, it’s all they know is ballet, and in terms of Kristin for instance she had come to an impasse. She had decided, she was bulimic; she was very unhappy dancing because she didn’t feel she had a personal life or that she had developed personally. And she took time off, she got pregnant, she had her child, she came back with her new husband, Michael Locicero, and he became a masseuse for the company, so their child was raised very much in – at the ballet. And she was proud of what she was doing and her audience to some large extent was her son and her husband; her family life became very – at least as important as the ballet.
Jo Reed: In fact, stepping away from the ballet to have their children gave Kristen, Tina and Katita the ability to renew their commitment to dance.
Lucy Gray: It was the first break they’d had. They’d never really taken a break, any of them, and this – they – that was a revelation to them. They were terrified to take a vacation-- it wasn’t exactly a vacation because they were having a child, but it just had an extraordinary effect; they felt refreshed about ballet because they had been so single-minded. It just opened their world up and gave them other ideas and other things to think about and out it in perspective, put dancing in perspective—
Jo Reed: I was really shocked to learn that in Europe, ballerinas do have children and continue to dance.
Lucy Gray: Yes, Europe, Russia, Australia, China. Other countries realize <laughs> the natural reality; women in their twenties, in their thirties have children.
Jo Reed: Well, how supportive was San Francisco Ballet while you were there – first Kristin, and then Tina became or wanted to become pregnancy – how did artistic director Helgi Tomasson respond to the news?
Lucy Gray: I think he was shocked – <laughs> I think they think he was shocked but he didn’t want to lose them. He making, was just at the beginning of making that company into the world-class company that it is today, and they were key dancers in that plan and in that trajectory so he didn’t want to lose them and he didn’t lose them. He made it so that he could keep them. He helped them. He promoted Kristin from soloist to principal dancer. He allowed Tina to work out her finances. There are all kinds of things you can do to allow a dancer to make more money.
Jo Reed: Helgi Tomasson also got a big assist from Tina, Kristin, and Katita, who were professionals in every sense of the word.
Lucy Gray: They all arranged their pregnancies to fit into the schedule of the ballet, which is another extraordinary thing, because these women are so in charge of their bodies; they’re so in control and their bodies are so essential to everything that they do that when they wanted to have children, they decided to, just like everything else they organized it so that it would work.
Jo Reed: How long did they not dance?
Lucy Gray: That was different in different pregnancies for different people. Tina went back, Tina and Katita went back the next season; they didn’t miss a season. They danced into their fourth months and then went back the first time. Kristin took a year off. She was the one who had been disaffected and unhappy and had gone to New York and then SFB wanted her back and she was thinking about it all and decided that she’d make a go of it—and came back and was extremely happy.
Jo Reed: How difficult was it for them to get in shape again?
Lucy Gray: They’re very dedicated women and that dedication just shines out of everything they do. Each one of them on their own volition would go to the studio. Now the studio was made available for them—you know, if the ballet really didn’t want them they could have made it very tough for them to come back, but that obviously wasn’t the case – they – but the women of their own – on their own charge would rehearse, would take classes, came back and worked at the studio and then when classes started – resumed for the company they took company class and got back in shape. They dieted right away and physically exercised right away and got themselves back so that they could come back for the next season, which would be about three months after they had their child so—
Jo Reed: Did it take them long to get good roles again or did they have to start off in smaller roles until they found their feet–
Lucy Gray: Such a good question. Because it was all of their concern; they were all worried, they were all worried about getting back and they all felt the bump of trying to be – resume their importance in the company. They all felt that they had been – I don’t know – that they weren’t as important in some way. Katita felt that more than the others, but Katita was more of a worrier;
They all talk about that, yes, they all talk about – and everybody finds it tough to go back; they all feel that they’re not as wanted as they were and they all said that they felt very insecure about their position until, until they didn’t, until they felt that they were back in and they were dancing – getting the roles that they wanted to. I don’t think they had smaller roles necessarily because once you’re a principal basically they were given principal roles but they weren’t necessarily given as many roles as they would have liked. They did work their way back in.
Jo Reed: The three dancers did more than work their way back in – they positively shone. Critics marveled at their new level of dance.
Lucy Gray: They all three were appreciated for being better dancers than they were before and they each described that in a different way. Katita got over her stage fright after she had her son James It made her a much more relaxed dancer and allowed her to be the star that she is. Tina said that dancing was the most important thing in the world; she said, you know, “I realized I’m not saving a life out there. I’m entertaining people,” so she relaxed a bit. And Kristin felt the joy of being a mother and she had a little different experience in that her husband made it so that he was at the ballet with their son so their family was really there every day all day at the ballet so she had allies there. All ballerinas feel so isolated and insecure at certain points – any creative person does in any field; and Kristin just had the boost and the excitement of a family as well as the – her work in one place, and she had been the most concerned about not having a personal life so now she was given one that integrated into her working life perfectly.
Jo Reed: And Lucy, as you make clear in the book, we have to give a shout-out to the dancers’ husbands – they were key players in this as well.
Lucy Gray: Yes. Without those husbands, those dancers could never have done what they did. The husbands were the keys to keeping them connected with their children, to being the – they handled the children at home so that the women could go to work and the husbands all had careers too; it’s not that they didn’t. Their careers took hits because they were the ones who dedicated themselves at home to the primary caregiving.
Jo Reed: Okay, you’re taking pictures of dancers who are used to being photographed, used to being assessed – being on view – they rehearse in front of a mirror – but, at the same time, your photos were different. Was there an adjustment period?
Lucy Gray: The ballerinas were a little confused about what kind of picture I was taking because they were very skilled and used to people taking their photographs, but they were used to having their skills shown by the company photographers, so they would do a pirouette or whatever – a jete or they would do something for the camera that would illustrate their prowess as ballerinas. I was after something different. I wanted to get at who these people were and what their experience was of the world.
Jo Reed: In the world of ballet, everything depends on the vision of the artistic director and dancers’ careers rise and fall based on the director’s assessment of their talent, certainly – but on also their look. And they are taught from an early age that projecting that look is important.
Lucy Gray: They spend their entire lives trying to get their director’s attention, approbation. They want the roles and the way they get cast is to be appreciated by the director.
I knew when it was happening, and I was photographing that, how important and essential that was to the dancers’ view. I was waiting to photograph the ballerinas once in the lobby of SFB and on a table there was a booklet that they put out for young dancers who were in the school, and it said, “Always wear fitted clothing and comport yourself appropriately for a ballerina because you never know who is looking at you and what you might get out of it. <laughs> So in class, in the halls, anywhere you go you are a ballerina and you remember that.”
Jo Reed: What brought you to photography?
Lucy Gray: My first camera when I was a child was given to me – was called a Swinger; it was a Polaroid black-and-white-image camera, which I loved. In college, this wonderful woman, Blanche Gelfant, gave me an assignment to make slide shows about the history of photography for her, particularly Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. They spoke to me in a profound way, their work did, that stuck with me.
And even though I was a writer – I loved photography and planned vacations around it. I would go to, when there was a show somewhere I would decide that that’s what we needed to do – my husband and I needed to do for vacation and we would go there and see the shows – the photography shows. I collected photography books, everyone knew at Christmas and birthday what to give me, and then I was writing – I was a very frustrated writer and I was in the afternoons making collages out of postcards. And two friends of mine, Barbara Katz – who is a wonderful photographer, who gave me her – a camera of hers and said-- she put it in my hand <laughs> and she said, “You are a photographer. You have to do this” – and Lynn Hershman Leeson, a great artist in this country, told me that I was an artist and those collages were clearly – I needed to be making visual art. I listened to the two of them and started taking pictures. I took a class at San Francisco Art Institute, a darkroom class.
I had a three-year-old son who was changing my in terms of giving me confidence and giving me an openness to the world. As a writer, I had been feeling very closed and I said no a lot, I had a lot of pretentious ideas, and as I went to the preschool where my son was going to start when he was three and they – you had to sign up for something and I signed up to take pictures of the children for a fundraiser, and that was a fantastic experience; the – I loved it. The pictures sold and people started asking me to take pictures. The first people who asked me were people who wanted their wedding photographed <laughs> which is – that’s a pretty tall order but I said yes. I just decided I had been saying no as a writer; I was going to say yes as a photographer.
Jo Reed: Do you still say no as a writer and yes as a photographer?
Lucy Gray: No. Now I say yes as a writer too. I say yes to everything. <laughs> I learned yes was a good word. <laughs>
Jo Reed: And what about your own experience of parenting and pursuing a creative life? Is it at all similar to the dancers?
Lucy Gray: What I had in common with the ballerinas was that having children opened me up. Both my sons made me take myself more seriously in a way. I thought of myself as an experimenter before I had children. Once I had my first son and knew someone would be seeing what I did and it would matter to them what I did, it would maybe make a difference in who he became, I really cared about success more than I had before and that made me buckle down and-- in a way and open up in another way so that I took on something new. I got over the fact that I was having this trouble writing. I really felt that I wasn’t getting at the deeper part of myself. I needed to do something else. I had a child. I turned to photography, I turned to yes <laughs> and stopped the no, things just opened up. I had just felt I was good at it from the beginning. I took one picture of my son, the three-year-old, that was something I still think is one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken, and when I saw that come up in the darkroom in the bath I said, “Okay. I think it’s going to be okay. I think you can do this,” and from then on I just had a confidence that maybe I didn’t deserve but <laughs> I had it
Jo Reed: Okay, Don’t want you to leave without telling us the story of the book Balancing Acts. I mean this was some 14 years in the making – which I don’t think was your original idea. What was the original timeline?
Lucy Gray: I assumed that I would have a book in two years because the subject had never been done. There are nearly 75 million working mothers in this country; half the workforce are women. I mean I assumed it would be a good subject for a book. After two years, I went to a publisher and-- somebody I knew who had been on Balanchine’s board who knew a great deal about ballet and also loved ballet books, and he said women have to choose; you have to be a mother or work, you can’t do both, which shocked me. I hung up the phone saying, “Oh, my God.” I never imagined that would be the problem. I went to two other publishers I knew and they both said, “Black and white photographs don’t sell.”
Okay. That was 2003, I just kept going. 2005, I had an agent who took the book to twenty-five publishing houses who turned it down. They all said the same thing; they thought the only three people in the world who would care about this book were the three prima ballerinas who were mothers who were in the book. I cry for three weeks and say, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do?” because my agent gives up. I kept saying, “No. Everybody says for a first-time book it’s 35 publishers,” <laughs> and she said, “No. I quit.” So very-- I was very sad and thought the project was over but then after the three weeks of being really sad I picked myself and said, “What are you going to do? You’ve got to keep going. You have this material. You can’t just let it go. It’s not-- those ballerinas. You’ve got to do it for them,” I was certainly keeping up with them about what I was doing and, it’s something about the ballerinas that I treasure, they never looked up and said, “What are you doing? Forget it”
Jo Reed: The years went by and Lucy kept on photographing the dancers. Babies grew into toddlers—into children—into teenagers. The dancers themselves began to retire, and, though Lucy Gray went on to other projects, she continued with Balancing Acts.
Lucy Gray: 2013 I got-- I went to a portfolio review in New York and met five publishers and the first four said the same thing that all the 25 had said earlier and the fifth one, Princeton Architectural Press, Sara Bader, said – she just understood it immediately; she understood that these were extraordinary women and yet they also reflected what was going on in this country and in a very big, real way, and that it was a little pocket that revealed a bigger story for-- a more common story for people.
Jo Reed: So, story so the moral of that story is keep on.
Lucy Gray: Yes, no – if you know – I knew it was right. I mean come on, 75 million – I kept saying to these publishers, “75 million people. <laughs> A bestseller is like a hundred thousand copies or something. <laughs> We’ve got to be able to get to some of those people.”
Jo Reed: And I bet you have. Lucy Gray, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
That’s photographer Lucy Gray. Her book is called Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Her book Balancing Acts takes us backstage with dancers who are mothers.