The camera freezes motion; but when the subject is dance, it also freezes the grace, angularity and aspiration of the human form and spirit. Thus, the best dance photography amounts to much more than fixed moments in time. In this exhibit, images of the dance depict a primal art form urged to fresh life, blending tradition and personal style with startling immediacy regardless of the photographic eras in which they were made.
In its way, the evolution of dance photography reflects the evolution of the medium, since the capacity to freeze moving figures with any clarity had to await the development of faster emulsions and sufficient camera technology. As a result, dance images are very much of the 20th century, even though early and mid-century portraits of well-known ballerinas, for example, or stylized art-nouveau dancers, tend to be posed, formal representations that emphasize the subjects' delicacy of carriage and costumed finery.
At the same time, more candid dance photography thrived in the lens of such prolific masters as Brassai, whose images of street dancers or tutued children preparing for a performance are worthy of Degas in their sense of place and scale. Other photographers were more interested in capturing motion and energy--via shots of blurred-limbed dancers--than in freezing the onstage tableaux, as if to suggest the abstractions of the Cubists.
Indeed, the kinetic power of the body rules this exhibition, whether in the emotive elongations of a young Martha Graham, or in naturalistic shots of casual, anonymous youth jitterbugging in the dance halls of Europe or America, or of young children on the streets. For sheer impact and immediacy, these images certainly trump the static posturings of early-twentieth century dance photographs of nude or flouncy-costumed terpsichoreans straining, perhaps, to hold position long enough for a slow shutter.
Yet such antique representations of the dance have tremendous charm, suggesting a determination to use the camera to conjure the presence of the flesh in action, or of the day's most fashionable performance art. And to the extent that dance photography suggests a modern sensibility, it may be located in images of sparsely populated dance floors, in which the embracing couples seem more estranged from each other than truly together.
Ultimately, it is the element of personality expressed in stylized motion that makes this exhibit a triumphant collection of images. Indeed, the effort of the body to express itself in pure form and motion brings out an ineffable essence of the person, and nothing but photography can keep it so timelessly alive.