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Movement distilled: A conversation with dance photographer Tom Kramer

Bill DeYoung

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Dancer Erin Cardinal. All photos by Tom Kramer (unless noted).

Justice Rodriguez and Kayci Rodriguez of Tampa City Ballet.

There’s something haunting about still photographs of movement, of fleeting beats of time captured and held. And photographs of dancers in action, with muscles flexed, limbs outstretched and eyes determined, are the most beautiful and affecting. A dance photo isn’t the same as actually watching dance live, of course, but it’s a similarly valid – and rewarding – art form.

Saturday marks the start of thestudio@620’s Dance Hall Festival, a monthlong celebration of dance that’s scheduled to include performances from local artists and companies, social events, lectures and demonstrations.

On exhibit for the duration, A Decade of Dance is a mounted collection of photographs by Tom Kramer, the bay area’s premiere practitioner of the photographic arts as they apply to dance. The opening reception, from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, corresponds with the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk.

The exhibit includes Kramer images taken over the past 10 years, of bay area performers and regional/national companies visiting the area.

During the reception, a number of the local dancers will “bring the work to life” with pop-up live performances.

Tom Kramer and his dancer/choreographer wife Paula – she’s one of the founders of Beacon, the bay area’s leading dance platform – arrived in St. Petersburg in 2001. They’d spent the previous four decades in Detroit, where she practiced her art, and he practiced his.

He’s always been content as a behind-the-scenes guy, and although he’ll be there with bells on at Saturday’s reception, running a slide show with additional photos from his career, he probably won’t make some sort of speech.

“I doubt it,” Kramer says. “There’s only so many things can go on at one time.”

Admission to the Saturday event is free.

 

Helen Hansen French.

What are you trying to show the viewer?

I am trying to show them what dance looks and feels like when it’s slowed down to an individual image. If I had a dream – a fantasy – it would be to be able to go in and photograph a dance concert while the audience was still there, somehow magically transform them into prints, and then when they leave the dance concert all the prints are in the lobby. And I’d like them to pass by and say “Oh, yeah, that’s what I saw!” And it really wasn’t, because it happened so differently.

 

The ephemeral nature of dance?

Exactly! It’s here, it takes place in a certain space, in a certain time, and then it’s gone. And the only things you have to remember it, really, are the photographs, or videos.

 

You’ve said about your photos: You capture the moment “just before” or “just after.”

I love that moment. I’m striving to capture the exact moment, at the peak of action. Of course, you don’t always succeed, and sometimes the effort that is going into the movement, or coming out of the movement, is every bit as exciting, maybe moreso. Some of the photographs in the exhibit will demonstrate that – you’ll see some pictures of dancers who are falling out of their movement, or haven’t quite reached the apex yet.

 

Charlotte Johnson.

Compositionally, are you looking for perfection? Let’s say you’ve captured a great moment of movement, but in the image, the dancer’s face looks funny, or there’s a foot in an odd place, or a blur or something. Do you still use those photos because they have the essence of what you’re looking for?

No. My first responsibility is to the dance and the dancers. And if it does not fulfill their expectations – if it isn’t good dance, if their form isn’t quite right, if their center of energy is wrong – if it isn’t good dance, it will not be published. I have a sort of unspoken pact with the dancers and choreographers – please relax, do your very best, and if it isn’t working, nobody else is going to see it.

 

You’re also an advocate for dance, aren’t you? “Come and see how beautiful this is.”

That’s, very precisely and specifically, what I do. The idea of showing them, of having an exhibit, was never on my mind. And it never is now, when I photograph. I’m photographing for the dancers and the company, trying to come up with material that they can use to promote their art form. That’s what I do it for – the fact that some of the pictures happen to turn out rather well, and people choose to exhibit them, that’s very nice.

 

Tom Kramer. Photo by Cris Fontaine, Creative Clay artist.

 

 

 

 

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