PHOTOGRAPHY | LUCY GRAY
When I was 10, my parents divorced — and I watched with fear and admiration as my mother got her first job so she could support five children. That made me sensitive to the subject of working mothers. It wasn’t surprising that later, as a photographer with children, I would try and get at that subject. I asked friends who were working mothers to pose for me.
One was an executive who pumped milk in her car as she drove to work each morning. But I couldn’t get the dare in what she did in my pictures. You couldn’t see the baby crying at home, or her anxiety about expressing enough milk, or her cool in doing it right before a meeting with business executives.
I knew almost nothing about ballet or dancers but when I met Katita Waldo, a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet, holding her 3-day-old son James at CalMart, I wanted to photograph her. Her work was visual and, when she brought her son to the studio or the stage, what I would capture would inherently show the two worlds.
Katita said there were two more principal dancers who were moms at San Francisco Ballet: Kristin Long and Tina Le-Blanc. Like many people, I had imagined that ballerinas couldn’t have babies because they were too thin. But these women had gotten pregnant in a two or three-month window so they could fit their pregnancies into the dancing seasons.
I wrote a proposal outlining a book of photographs centered on the ballerinas and sent it to the ballet and the three dancers. We later met in the company lounge, where I brought contracts to the dancers and their husbands. I explained it would be a long-term relationship — two years — never dreaming it would take 15 years before I had a book.
The ballerinas were happy to have a record of raising their children, and I was teased a bit around the ballet for being their personal photographer. Very few were the usual pictures of dancers leaping on stage or sweating afterwards in high contrast behind the curtain.
I had imagined depicting women in serious time conflicts who were having difficulty in all parts of their lives, but that is where the grace of their husbands became key to the story. All three had careers: Katita’s husband, Marshall Crutcher, was a composer; Kristin’s husband, Michael Locicero, became the ballet masseur; and Tina’s husband, Marco Jerkunica, was building sets for television shows. But they were also the primary caregivers for the children. They were the ones who brought the boys to the ballet to see their mothers.
Marshall, Michael and Marco allowed their wives to feel connected as mothers so they could flourish as dancers. And all three women, astonishingly, became better dancers after they had children. They felt they had found a balance in their lives. Being mothers helped put their work in perspective. Every jete was not the end-all and be-all of their existences, while earning a living at something they loved was good for their children. The dancers were proud to be able to give the dimension of theater to their children.
I was chronicling women whose range of experience in creativity was broad. The women were succeeding at the top of their field in a world-class company, and also as mothers at home. Even though our lives were very different, I, too, as a working mother, was feeling the joy and the pain that I was capturing in their days. They gave another facet to my life.
I was amazed and bewildered that I didn’t get a book deal in two years, as I had promised the ballet company. The first call I made was to a highly respected editor who had been on choreographer George Balanchine’s board and published more ballet books than anyone else. He told me women had to choose between working and having children; we couldn’t do both. The second editor I consulted told me that black and white images didn’t sell. My agent sent the proposal to 25 publishers who all turned it down, saying the only people who would buy the book were the three ballerinas in it.
Luckily, the ballerinas never wavered. And finally, a couple of years ago, I went to a photographer’s portfolio review in New York where I pitched the book to four publishers. One of them, Sara Bader, at Princeton Architectural Press, got it. She thought black and white images helped the documentary feel. She recognized that the dancers were extraordinary and that the images of them peeled open a secret world while also expressing what all we mothers feel, but with beauty.
Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers is available locally at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore and Sue Fisher King at 3067 Sacramento.