Excerpted from Jordan Matter’s Dancers After Dark, on sale now!
I met Michaela DePrince in 2013 when the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival arranged for a shoot. She was already on a meteoric rise to the top of her profession, having starred in the award-winning dance documentary First Position and landed a coveted slot with Dance Theatre of Harlem.
We kept in touch over the years as I watched her career continue to blossom. She moved from Harlem to one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world, Dutch National Ballet. Her bestselling memoir, Taking Flight, which documents her incredible life story, was optioned for a movie by MGM.
In 2015 I got an email from Michaela that simply read, “I’ll be in NYC in August. Let’s shoot Dancers After Dark.” My first thought was, Really? Followed quickly by, She needs to be my cover girl. I’ll have one evening to take a cover-worthy photograph. We met at 9:00 p.m. at Columbus Circle and started walking east. Staying true to my process, I was relying on serendipity to guide me. As we passed Seventh Avenue, the red streetlights and illumination from Times Square caught my eye. I thought it might be interesting to photograph Michaela right in the middle of a busy avenue. As I started working on lighting and composition, Michaela experimented with several poses.
I decided to keep it simple—she would be crossing the street in pointe shoes. As I set the light, I asked Michaela to keep her shirt on. Somehow I assumed we would draw less attention if her breasts were covered. I was mistaken.
A major avenue just north of Times Square had a significant police presence and a constant stream of vehicles and pedestrians, so we shot quickly. Michaela ran into the street five times. I was looking for a magic moment. Pedestrians were essential, but they had to be just right. We came close several times.
Then, on the sixth dash into the crosswalk, serendipity arrived in the form of a man in the distance, glancing at Michaela while mirroring her stride. Her gaze was strong and determined, and her position was perfect.