Forgetting the poignant 2000 film “Billy Elliot” and its musical spin-offs, male ballet dancers rarely get main billing. Fashion photographer Matthew Brookes is out to change that with “Les Danseurs,” his forthcoming book exalting the lithe bodies and otherworldly poses of 20 members of the Paris Opera Ballet.
“I was fascinated by their physicality, their strength and the training that’s involved,” Brookes says. “They are first and foremost athletes, more than artists.”
Yet Brookes, who has lensed perfume campaigns for Giorgio Armani and shot portraits for Vanity Fair, is inspired by how these unassuming young men summon wonder and awe as they twist and leap into all manner of improvised shapes and contortions, most of them deliberately unclassical.
“A metamorphosis happens and they channel something from another dimension,” Brookes continues. The photographer happened upon the project when a casting director friend in Paris introduced him to a dancer to shoot, and from there, the introductions spiraled. “It’s something godly, almost mystical.”
“It was really an honor,” the photographer says of the troupe, billed in Paris dance circles as one of the most promising crops in ages, all coming into their prime. The group included three étoiles: Hervé Moreau, Josua Hoffalt and Mathieu Ganio.
Toes point toward the heavens in one image, torso crumples over a bent knee in another, the dancers are pictured with a plain canvas backdrop wearing black tights or shorts — leaving nothing to distract from their feats.
The 68-page hardback, to be published by Damiani in September, will be unveiled during a signing of limited-edition copies during Paris Couture Week at Colette. The event signals Brookes’ extensive fashion network, and that classical dancers are inspiring to designers, with Dries Van Noten and Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier among marquee talents having recently paraded runway collections exalting ballet.
Brookes applied his graphical eye and affinity for portraiture to the images, which were taken over a one-year period between the endless training and rehearsals dancers endure from a young age.
“They’re completely creative in their own right,” Brookes says. “Their sheer grace is something that could really inspire anyone, whether photographers or designers.”
Brookes points to how the dancers could mimic each other’s gestures, having each accrued a vocabulary linked to their impressive physiques. “They can see a group of feet and they’ll know each and everyone’s feet. They seem to know each others’ bodies backward,” he said.
While the book features a forward by star French ballerina Marie-Agnès Gillot, Brookes’ rallying cry is: Let’s hear it for the boys.
“A lot of times the male dancers are behind and the women are at the center of the stage. They get lost somehow,” Brookes says. “It’s nice to be able to give them a platform.”