A ballet reinvents itself, in photos

Shortly after moving into the Macalester neighborhood of St. Paul, photographer Caroline Yang walked into her neighborhood hardware store and wondered at the sounds of pounding feet from overhead.

She soon found out what she was hearing was a rehearsal of the Saint Paul Ballet; now she knows the company intimately.


Yang spent close to a year as an "embedded" photographer, documenting the ballet's transition to an artist-led organization. In order to keep the company financially viable, young dancers were stepping up to take over the marketing, finances and other administrative work.

"They’re all working at least two jobs to make this work.," said Yang. "And they’re charismatic. There’s something really magnetic about it, and I just wanted to be around that. It’s inspiring, and at this point they’re like family to me."

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A selection of Yang's photographs are the subject of a show that opens this weekend at Grand Central restaurant. She captures the beauty and grace of the professional dancers, as well as the giddy enthusiasm of young students. Less easy was capturing the devotion and exhaustive effort that goes into their training.

"The second week I was shooting it was during their holiday performances. They float across the stage, but once they come off the stage they’re heaving," said Yang. "They’re really great athletes, and that’s one of the misconceptions that I’d like to dispel – that they’re just these willowy princesses. They’re trained to make it look effortless."


One of those charismatic dancers is Brittany Adams, who also handles the company's public relations. Adams says while it's been a challenging year, the company is in a much better place. It's expanded to a second space in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and the financials are improving.

Adams says she hopes the photo exhibition gives the public a window into the ballet's very intense world.

"We’re really chasing our dreams," said Adams. "We’re doing it for ourselves, creating a company and world for ourselves where we can live as artists. We didn’t have a lot of help and we’re all really young, but we didn’t let that stop us."


The collaboration between Yang and the Saint Paul Ballet also led to "Take Back the Tutu,"  a photo project for Emily Program and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which focused on the strength and athleticism of dancers' bodies.

"The Saint Paul Ballet Project" opens Saturday with a reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and will feature a performance by Saint Paul Ballet Company dancers. Yang says she has a second group of photos waiting in the wings once this first exhibition is finished.

"It feels like something we’re working on together," said Yang. "It’s less about the angle I’m going to shoot from, it’s about being there for moments that come up, and watching them grow."