Rachel Papo’s series, Desperately Perfect, takes a behind-closed-doors look at the exacting lives of the students of St. Petersburg’s prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy. The photographs highlight the rigorous quotidian routines of the young dancers: legs stretch out long and high, backs are metronome-like, bending deep before returning to a straight posture. As enchanting as these images are, it would be a disservice to categorize this body of work as a simple look into the demands of what it means to be a student at a renowned academy. Instead, Desperately Perfect is a richly articulated look into the pursuit of a dream. There is something mysterious—and contagious—about gaining insight into someone else’s dream, specifically when it juxtaposes naivety, passion and seemingly insurmountable odds. Whether fueled by Olympic glory or the placing of a crown atop the head of a pageant winner, it is difficult not to be swayed by the story of anyone with passion and focus.
Papo worked on Desperately Perfect for five weeks in the spring of 2009. Her journey to get inside the doors of the academy—where Mikhail Baryshnikov had trained—wasn’t easy. Papo had recently completed a body of work on female Israeli soldiers, Serial No. 3817131, and had been looking to begin another project for which she felt a deep connection. Papo had spent part of her childhood attending a rigorous ballet program, but left when she was 14 because she was unable to compete at the level she desired. Developing a project about ballet seemed a natural choice. “I looked for something that would be just as emotional, and I started looking into photographing ballet students,” she said. “Not necessarily Degas-style photographs; I wanted to show more of who is behind the faces and then I started dreaming about Russia—I had a few dreams about St. Petersburg—and it came to me in my dream this idea—a crazy idea, because everywhere I read, I saw it’s impossible to get in to get access to such a school. My will to succeed made me pursue it without giving up.”
Desperately Perfect feels cinematic, like stepping into a Russian movie set. This setting is one nod to Papo’s title. The colors are rich, yet faded, highlighting both the opulence and the disrepair of the famed Russian city. Intricate fabrics look worn, as do the carpets that line the floors; an old telephone rests in the foreground of one image. There are mismatched chairs, crooked art on the walls, and the young students wear clothing with English words and phrases that are probably chosen to be “cool,” but instead feel out of context. The title, of course, also refers to the dancers. When photographing them during routines and rehearsal, Papo found that that their posing for the camera was automatic; as dancers after all, it is in their nature to pose. But it is not always clear if they were posing from the strict discipline of their ballet training or because they were hyper-aware of the camera’s presence. “They were really proud,” Papo said. “Maybe they thought I would bring them some recognition with the pictures—who knows?—they all agreed [to my being there] … no one ever said no.”
Papo also focuses on the human side to these children. Even during rehearsals, the images show them to sometimes seem shy or curious. As contained as their bodies and eyes are throughout the series, the viewer often has the sense that beneath that precision there is tension about to burst. Two images speak to Papo’s title in different ways. In the first, a line of girls stand against a wall reflected in the studio’s mirrors, their hair pulled back into buns. Papo was fortunate enough to visit the school during its annual audition, when the girls were lined up so administrators could gauge their physicality; if they literally measured up. They could easily just be a group of girls standing around before dance class, but with this context, it’s easy to imagine how desperately they wanted to succeed; perfection is hard enough without the added pressure of standing beside a parent so those who decide your fate can see where your body might be heading. In the second, a boy flies through the air alone in the studio. It’s the only photo that doesn’t seem to fit with the title. Levitating above the ground, his body is curved, his face full of joy. This image speaks to photography’s ability to capture a moment; perhaps the boy was posing, maybe Papo set it up or maybe she was just there. It reminds us that these athletes are, at their core, still children.
Although the journey towards realizing a dream is a long, potentially painful one, there are moments when passion, or practice seems, to the viewer, to be enough. “Perfection” often seems like a dirty word; something that cannot be attained and instead feels like a desperate setup. And yet looking at these dedicated young people in St. Petersburg through Papo’s lens, there is a sense of hope.
This article first appeared in Issue 10.
David Rosenberg is a freelance writer, producer and curator. He covers subjects ranging from photography to professional tennis.