Ballet is the most recent big theme in my work and I have painted a whole series of them over the last year or so. It took a long time to get access to Scottish Ballet’s dancers but when I did, in this case at a rehearsal for The Fairy’s Kiss at the Tramway in Glasgow, I was simply blown away. For this painting, In the Wings, nothing was planned, I was just hanging out backstage responding to what I saw: dancers warm-up and stretching, watching what was going on stage and just talking with one another.
I discovered that I’m actually not that interested in the dance itself. The world is flooded with paintings of ballet. So why would I bother if Degas had said all there is to say about ballet back in the 19th century? The answer is I was pretty sure I could do something else with it. And I suppose where my work differs dramatically from what Degas was interested in, is the extremes of dark and light. My work at its best is about high tonal contrast – I want to push the tonality as far as it will go. So in these paintings, the extreme contrasts of dark and light and the fact that there’s almost no colour at all is what makes them so atmospheric.
It was a combination of instinct and luck, and if these ballet paintings have any power at all, it’s the layers within them, that fly-on-the-wall stance of the observer watching the dancers watching the stage and watching each other from the wings. In this painting, I was intent on capturing that quiet introspective moment, that pause before the dancer moves out of the shadows and into the spotlight on stage.
On a metaphorical and artistic level, the performance space is the place where the magic happens, it’s an imagined space. It’s the place where the transformation occurs between the young girl standing in the wings in a ballet costume and the character on stage. As she moves out into that space she becomes something magical. In ballet there are so many contradictions; you have effortlessness which is only possible because of mind-blowing discipline and athleticism. And whereas I describe this performance space as magical, Scottish Ballet’s director himself describes it as brutal – speaks of the brutality of the that space, which I found a fascinating perspective on it, from the dancer’s point of view.
And that’s exactly what it is – there’s nowhere to hide out there, everything comes down to this moment and everything must be perfect, there is no room for error. So In the Wings reflects the stillness and concentration of a dancer gathering herself, preparing to move out into that space. That elusive moment between two worlds almost, moving from the safety of the shadows in one world offstage to another where beauty and magic mask the brutality and hard work that underlies it.
Normally when I introduce a new theme, it takes a while to bed in. The cityscapes at night, the still lifes – these things are all successful but it’s taken a while. With the ballet paintings, it happened instantly and they were a success overnight. There might always be the shadow of Degas of course – anything to do with ballet recalls Degas because he did it so perfectly. But his paintings were much more about colour and movement. Mine is more about stillness – the opposite of movement – and the tonal world of the shadows in the wings.