The Dancer With a Photographer's Eye

Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The year was 1956. Donald Bradburn, then 15, remembers standing in front of a hardware store in the small Central California town of Visalia, watching color TV for the first time through the shop window. It was a live performance of the ballet "Sleeping Beauty," danced by the Sadler's Wells company. At that moment, he decided dance would be his life.

In fact, Bradburn not only would become a dancer, choreographer, teacher and set and costume designer, he would also photograph most of the legendary dancers of the second half of the 20th century. And the photography portion of that career would begin almost immediately: A little later that year, sitting in the orchestra at a Fresno auditorium, Bradburn took a photo of Cuban star Alicia Alonso on tour with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Now the part-time photographer has mounted a show, "Donald Bradburn: Ballet in Los Angeles--A Moment in Time," 60 photographs culled from his thousands of images. The exhibition, in the gallery at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, coincides with BalletFest 2001, a celebration of professional ballet in L.A., now in its second season at the Luckman.

Dressed casually in shirt and slacks, his ruddy face framed by a thick head of gray hair, Bradburn sifts through stacks of proof sheets, old programs and boxes of negatives in the special collections department of the UC Irvine library, the repository of his archives. His journey has been long and varied, but fundamentally rooted in dance.

Bradburn left his hometown, Lindsay, Calif. (population: 5,000), to attend UCLA, where he was an art and theater major. As UCLA only offered modern dance then, Bradburn also enrolled at the American School of Dance in Los Angeles, founded and run by Eugene Loring. Loring was one of American Ballet Theatre's original dancers in the 1930s, and choreographed an American dance staple, "Billy the Kid." In the mid-'60s, he founded UCI's dance department. Bradburn studied a wide range of dance at Loring's school, including ballet and show dance.

"I was a shy, small-town boy. Mr. Loring saw something in me that I didn't. He saw me as dark and sultry and cast me in 'Carousel.' He also gave me a chance to design sets for some of his productions, as I was interested in the visual aspects of art, theater and painting."

Bradburn was on scholarship with Loring from 1959 to 1962, while still attending UCLA. Short of earning his degree, however, Bradburn began touring in a production of "West Side Story," one of 40 musicals--mostly produced in Southern California or on regional tours--in which he would perform. In 1967, he was also the youngest dancer cast in the film "Funny Girl."

Continuing his Hollywood trajectory, Bradburn hoofed on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" television show, a gig he had for nearly five years. "I would take a camera to the set [and] photograph. The PR department sent some photos to Dance magazine and [then-editor] Bill Como paid me $5 a photo," he recalls with a laugh.

Bradburn has since published more than 350 photos in Dance magazine, but he never gave up dancing and other work for full-time professional photography. In much the same way that he shot on the set of television shows, Bradburn's access came from being part of the scene. His connections got him into rehearsals and backstage, he shot at performances and in classes.

In the 1970s, at age 35, he faced with a difficult decision. He had an offer to dance with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century and opportunities to move into choreography and staging in commercial dance. Figuring his dancing days were numbered and the latter was a better career move, he began choreographing lavish floor shows in Reno, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, among them, singer Bobbie Gentry's act at the Sands Hotel.

The menu from her dinner show, open amid the memorabilia on the library table, features gefilte fish for $1.20 and prime rib for $17.50. Nestled beside photos of a leaping Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Hollywood Bowl, this seems an odd juxtaposition but typical of Bradburn's career.

"Baryshnikov was so clean," Bradburn says of the photo he shot with a Nikon 500-millimeter zoom lens that is featured in the exhibition. "What I'm looking for in photographing ballet is the peak point of action. I know choreography and music and I know they're going to hit that move on cue."

Bradburn snagged numerous peak points of action in the '70s and '80s, when ABT had regular seasons here, and many of his exhibition shots are from that era. There is a photo of Alexander Godunov with Martine van Hamel in "Swan Lake," as well as one of Godunov teaching at UCI. A photo of Rudolf Nureyev, whose original partner in "Raymonda" was Cynthia Gregory, is seen dancing with Gelsey Kirkland, a rare pairing, and one that immediately transports the viewer back in time.

Another rarity is Los Angeles Ballet's Johnna Kirkland dancing Balanchine's "Swan Lake" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre (Bradburn was official photographer of the now defunct Los Angeles Ballet from 1975 to 1984), while the rarest photo, perhaps, is that of Erik Bruhn in Kenneth MacMillan's modern opus "Las Hermanas." Considered one of the ultimate classicists, Bruhn is in contemporary dress, sans tights.

In fact, most of Bradburn's photos have never before been seen. Bradburn, who started teaching in the UCI dance department more than 20 years ago, had turned over his negatives and his collection of dance programs to the Irvine library starting in 1975. But he had never cataloged his holdings and the university hasn't begun to either. Putting together the exhibition gave him a start at organizing the collection. "It was difficult assembling them," he explains. "I only had negatives and nothing was labeled. I didn't have an assistant [because] I was always dancing and choreographing. I found pictures I didn't know I had."

Don Hewitt, who has taught privately and at the Los Angeles High School for the Performing Arts for 42 years, is the curator of BalletFest (and founder of the local annual showcase Dance Kaleidoscope). Having known Bradburn--and his work--for many years, Hewitt, along with Luckman executive director Cliff Harper, invited Bradburn to mount the show. "The exhibition covers a lot of the L.A. ballet scene which hasn't been well-documented," says Hewitt, "as well as unusual shots of European dancers and beautiful shots of ABT. Because of his extensive dance background, he catches them in wonderful places. Donald is somebody who's been, as far as I'm concerned, unrecognized. The thing that's so wonderful about his work are [the] pictures not normally seen."

Bradburn now teaches at UCI and CalArts, and still wields his Nikon. His most recent shots, also on view at the gallery, were done in Paris last March, at a ballet rehearsal at the Paris Conservatory choreographed by Orange County-based David Allan. Bradburn retains publication rights to his photos and hopes to some day put a book together. In the interim, he is working on a book on his mentor, "Beyond 'Billy the Kid': A Dance Biography of Eugene Loring."

In the meantime, however, one can gaze upon a photo of Alexander Kolpin dancing Billy's solo in Bradburn's 1989 UCI staging that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the seminal work.

"He's acting with his face and his body," Bradburn notes. "It's all about emotions, inhabiting roles. That's what I want to see."

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"DONALD BRADBURN: BALLET IN LOS ANGELES--A MOMENT IN TIME," Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, 5151 State University Drive, Cal State L.A.

Dates: Monday-Thursday and Saturday, noon-5 p.m.; also, one hour before and during intermission of BalletFest performances. Through Aug. 12.

Phone: (323) 343-6604.

Price: Free.

Also: BalletFest, Aug. 10-12, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, (323) 343-6600. $25-$30.

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