Sophie Harris-Taylor has photographed students at the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School (YBSS), capturing the in-between moments, when the dancers go back to just being children. Aged nine to 18, the students have travelled from across the world to be taught by some of most prestigious dancers in an intense one-week ballet school. “While most children can’t wait to have their summers off, these young dancers live and breathe this world, and are some of the most dedicated and determined young girls you could meet,” explains London-based Sophie. “Many will spend the entire summer going from school to school in order to achieve their dreams.”
Sophie’s links to the summer school go back a few years, having photographed auditions at the YBSS for its director. “The auditions let students go for scholarships that would otherwise be an unaffordable school for many,” explains the photographer. Having shot a more formal portrait series in 2015, which was then nominated for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, Sophie came back to the school to find “the next chapter”.
“Even though I have no personal experience or expertise in dance, I’ve just found the world of ballet increasingly fascinating and have worked with quite a lot of dancers. It’s a world so unlike anything else. Particularly with the youngsters trying to break in,” says Sophie of her motivations. “I find it incredible to see these children with such passion and determination, with their hearts set on such a defined path.”
While the photogenic nature of ballet lends itself well to being photographed, for Sophie she wanted to document the times in between rehearsing. “This was when you got to see the truth and character coming through, something I always look for in my work,” she says. “I’d overhear discussions between the house matrons and the tutors about the dynamics of the groups of girls – who was ‘in’ with the cool clique, or feeling left out, which groups were forming or bickering. Despite these girls being a kind of elite, super talented group, it really reminded me of being a little girl at school at the same age, their concerns and interests and personalities weren’t that different at all.”
Throughout the series Sophie captures the “contrasts between achievement and normality, maturity and innocence” and this is interpreted through the physicality of the dancers, as well as the group dynamics captured. “They look so fragile and slender yet are incredibly physically strong,” she says. “They are so immaculate in their appearance, not a hair out of place, but their feet are bandaged and broken. The symbolism and stories in these contrasts is very moving.”
Shot on film, the series is the most “pure documentary” the photographer has done and the light colours reflect her natural approach, adding to the honesty and openness seen in Sophie’s subjects. “I wanted to find some truth and humanity which is inevitably invisible on stage behind the costumes and perfect choreography. Most of these girls are really just children, which can be obscured by their ambition and talent,” explains Sophie. “I think in that there’s a kind of relatability, that we’re all at heart kind of alike.”