Photo shoots may be the least invasive channel to allow others entry into a person’s soul, to transform the private realm and deliver it to the public in nuanced ways. This is what Betti Franceschi has been doing for much of her life as an artist, sculptor and now a photographer of dancers.
New York-based Franceschi is the eye behind the current exhibit, Ageless Dancers. Originally scheduled for the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs [temporarily closed], the installation is at the Dee Sarno Theater at Saratoga Arts, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) as part of its Dance Around Town: A Photographic Celebration (other venues are listed below) through August 13, 2022.
What surprised Betti the most about the project was how easy it turned out to be. She convinced a few dancers to come to her studio and both parties were terrified, but only until one began to move in front of the black ground and Franceschi started to shoot.
Says Franceschi: “After six decades of drawing, painting and sculpting dancers, this project is a departure for me only in the sense that these works are digital photographs, rather than from my hand.” She learned the technicalities of photography to fulfill the germ of an idea in 1983.
Inspired by the retired ballerinas she met at a New York City Ballet gala in Paris when she accompanied her dancer-daughter Antonia, she wanted to capture dancers at their most mature states: “The ageless artist in each of those grand dames, and those who have followed, must be recorded and honored.”
Among the dancers in the series are: Brenda Bufalino, Hilary Cartwright, Gary Chryst, Carmen de Lavallade, Wendy Perron, Gus Solomons, Jock Soto and many others in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The sole centenarian, Henry Danton who died this year at 102, danced with Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer and was teaching at the time of his passing. He was once quoted as saying, “Swimming is the best workout after ballet.”
As an 87-year-old, Franceschi respects her own body’s arc: strengths and weaknesses, modifying and adapting without interruption. When her eyesight blurred once clear outlines, she altered the lighting and followed a younger colleague’s suggestion to try sculpting.
Liquid with sunlight, her studio brims with her work, including a half-dozen sculptures of the core or torso. One sculpture is of the yoga “child’s pose”, like a closed leaf, another shows a split in the torso, as if illustrating the breath dancers summon to perform.
Snowy-haired and petite, Franceschi moves as the dancer she aspired to be: head up as if tethered to a thread to the heavens, neck above spine, shoulders squared, she is a formidable woman who recognizes the importance of the “line” of the body. To produce the Signature series, she kneeled on the floor of rehearsal studios to instantly capture dancers in mid-flight.
Franceschi flips the culture of ageism in America on its head. Although the dancers’ onstage technique may be past its prime, they retain an expressive energy, physicality, spirit and triumphant power. “My fundamental motivation is to refute the youth-enthralled ageism of the American culture we live in. People are living longer and staying engaged and vibrant well into and past the old rocking-chair decades,” she says.
Looking to the present and future of dance, she adds, ,“I have high hopes for street dance, hip-hop, lyrical, fusion and other dance forms young people are performing”. In the meantime, Still Point is still available through her website and Ageless Dancers will be published in book form while she leaps from one project to the next.
What is her secret to keeping the passion going? “…you have to be chasing something. I’m lucky that what has always interested me, still does.”
Location: Saratoga Arts
Dates: June 18 – August 13 (Franceschi’s exhibit)
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm | Saturday 12pm to 4pm
Dance Around Town is a citywide collection of dance photographs that showcases the spirit of dance with three dedicated exhibitions by world-renowned artists: Ageless Dancers by Betti Franceschi at Saratoga Arts; Robert Tracy’s collection of George Balanchine’s prima ballerinas at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College; and Merce My Way by Mikhail Baryshnikov at SPAC through Aug 21.