Edward Watson needs no introduction, being the longest serving Principal at The Royal Ballet in London, with countless leading roles in breath taking ballets. We have had the pleasure of talking to Rick Guest - in this in-depth interview - about his new photographic work on Watson, created with his collaborator Olivia Pomp, in order to carry out their research in this ephemeral art.
A few years ago, we talked about your choice of portraying dancers. A huge challenge due to the ephemeral nature of dance and ballet. Did you have to change your perspective in order to complete your new folio about Edward Watson?
The premise of the series of portraits, entitled What Lies Beneath, that this new folio arose from, was about the sacrifice that dancers make to their art and the spirit necessary to push through that sacrifice to achieve a purity of artistic expression. This was done by stripping away all artifice, such as costumes, character and stagecraft, to reveal the dancers themselves, vulnerable and defiant in equal measure, and to show how this process was written on their skin and the resulting physicality from years of dedicated practice.
The new folio of prints seeks to celebrate an individual dancer, that of Edward Watson, Principal of The Royal Ballet, in his 30th year at The Royal Ballet Company and School. It was thus necessary to give a nod to his greatest roles as well as hopefully revealing something of the dancer behind it, through photographs of his closest collaborators, images in costume that reflect those roles, and more intimate portraits of both his character and physicality.
The previous question leads us to the heart of our interview: the monographic book dedicated to Edward Watson. He is an unprecedented principal, versatile and at ease with every leading role. Could you tell us more about the genesis of this work and what it was like to work with him and portray him again, after your first publications?
Edward was the first dancer I ever photographed and over the last eight or nine years has become something of a muse; he has been the most generous of collaborators, both with his time and spirit, offering up to me both his astonishing physical prowess and emotional vulnerabilities. In the run up to his 30th year under The Royal Ballet umbrella, it just made sense to us both to try and leave some sort of physical legacy for such an ephemeral art form, an artefact that could act as both a marker for what he had achieved, but also as a statement of intent for what was yet to come.
Edward is the longest serving Principal at The Royal Ballet and has had the more work created on him than any other dancer at The Royal Ballet, by an amazing variety of luminary choreographers, each one acts of incredible collaboration. I wanted to photograph him with some of his greatest collaborators, such as the era defining choreographers Wayne McGregor, Arthur Pita and Christopher Wheeldon, as well as the Director of The Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, a long time champion of Ed, to express something of their relationships and leave that collaborative record behind.
Photographing him in costume and in character is incredible. The transformation to this other person happens right in front of you and is absolute, Ed is gone and this other person is there, he so completely inhabits them. On top of this, most of his roles also require extreme physical acts with deep emotional resonance, which when performed right in front of you are truly astonishing.
Ed is at the very peak of his career; he is still at the height of his physical prowess, but what has deepened since I’ve known him is the emotional gravitas he now brings to these roles from having lived a life to the full. The other aspect to his career that is both unique and remarkable is his sheer range, from classical to contemporary, from physically abstract to searing emotional intensity; there is simply no other dancer like him.
He is also, and this is perhaps his most beguiling and surprising aspect, completely humble; both generous of spirit and kind of heart, and it is through these traits that is he is the greatest and most empathetic of collaborators.
The introduction is by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. What do you think persuaded him to write such a heartfelt homage to Edward Watson?
The Prince of Wales was incredibly kind to write the foreword, and I think that what appealed to him was the foundation behind Edward’s career, his training received at The Royal Ballet School. Their philosophy and ambition has shaped both Edward and subsequently this folio, that of dedication and excellence, embodying their ethos of "strength and grace". Hopefully, His Royal Highness saw what Edward and I were trying to achieve, to produce a beautiful artefact that aspires to create a lasting legacy and hopefully inspire generations of dancers to come.
Do you think you need different strategies to approach every single dancer?
Every dancer is unique of course, but it is my job to tailor my approach to both the dancer and the body of work that the photograph is being taken for, so that they are equally served. Whilst it’s often important to have an overarching theme, I always like to try and keep my eyes open to what’s in front of me, not what I think I’m there for. Dancers are both athletes and performers, so if the conditions are right, the performer will often offer up a gift and you have to be smart enough to try and catch it.
You seem to be constantly working on new projects. What should we expect in the near future?
There are some exciting things in the pipeline; I’m currently finishing a book on Robert Binet, an incredible Canadian choreographer, a diary of what the alchemy of creating a ballet looks like, as well as working on a book of backstage photographs at The Royal Ballet, that is more about how ballet feels, if that makes any sense!
We are living in an incredible time for dance of all kinds; perhaps this is some kind of reaction to the times we are living through or just an irrepressible expression of the human spirit, but either way, it’s truly joyous. Paraphrasing Martha Graham: “Dance is the Language of the Soul”.