The Story of a Ballet School and the Pandemic Told Through a Yashica 635

When gazing at the photo series Ballet on Film by photographer Lisa Cho, it’s natural to become enraptured by its charming conveyance of elegance, perseverance, and depth. The self-taught photographer — who began her career in her 30s — aims to translate her love of cinema and “beauty” through the lens of her treasured Yashica 635.

This camera is special to her because she fell in love with the device after seeing “Finding Vivian Maier .”.

Although I have other cameras, this one is my favourite. As of today, [the Yashica] is 52 years old and still creating great photos. The vast majority of my film work is created using this camera and shot on Kodak Portra 800,” Cho says, speaking with PetaPixel.

The film choice aids Cho in her quest to capture indoor and nighttime shots when there is low light. It is an expensive investment but it pays off, she says.

Ballet on Film

The camera also proved to be an excellent asset when she embarked on her latest project Ballet on Film, Cho’s passion-fueled vision to capture the inner workings of a ballet company in Honolulu, Hawaii. Although the project was originally intended to celebrate and highlight the exceptional expressions of ballet in the island, it evolved into a deeper and more intimate look at the art and its place within a world that is suffering from a pandemic.

Cho tells the story of the Honolulu classic ballet from its inception to its present day, through to the finale, which depicts joyous returns to the stage. She also shared that she did not take many photographs during the sessions.

Ballet on Film

“I shot 36 photos for most chapters of Ballet on Film. When you shoot that little, you really think about each photo,” she says.

“You think about the subject, the background, the emotions of a scene, and the story you are telling. Shooting film slows you down in this fast-paced, instant gratification world we live in and makes you a better photographer.”

With its dancers ranging from three to 16 years old, it was a first for Cho to work with these younger ages. The nature of the pandemic, and how it affected the ability to capture intimacy and emotion were the main challenges.

Ballet on Film

” The masks were the most challenging part of the pandemic Ballet on Film . Art is emotion and a subject’s face communicates so much of how they are feeling,” she says.

Although social dancing is synonymous with COVID because it was performed at unusual venues and not on a raised platform with wings, I found myself closer to the performers. I love being close. That’s where I find the intimacy and emotions of the story.”

Ballet on Film

From the start of the series, Cho sought to illustrate the behind-the-scenes or rather the story behind the story. Cho was very interested in capturing all the details involved in creating a performance.

There’s an identical thread in my work. Pre-production and after-production are just as crucial as the shot. Sometimes, they’re even more so. The dancer’s preparation before the performance is what will shine when the curtain is raised.” she says.

Ballet on Film

Cho’s technique and film pinpoint a few moments like only film can.

“Film photography is about creativity, intrinsic beauty, depth, and all the intangibles that words can’t necessarily describe. It’s about slowing down, thinking through a scene not rattling off 30 photos because I have space on my memory card, it’s about the experience and doing something tangible in the intangible world. Everyone views the world through their own unique lens, film photography lets me retell the story the way I experienced it.”

As an outside observer of the series, it is also striking to identify the captured moments of perseverance displayed by each of the young dancers and notice a sort of mirroring and reflection of the kind of perseverance that many artists needed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is just one example of Cho’s ability to visual storytell.

Ballet on Film

Ballet on Film

Cho has said that feedback on the series has been wonderful.

“And I was so lucky to have the support of my photography mentors, Floyd, Olivier, and Malcolm who continue to guide me.”

Cho hopes that Ballet on Film” shows a universally relatable story of resilience and innovation.

Ballet on Film

Ballet on Film

“Everyone in the world has been affected by the pandemic. Everyone has had to leap, twist and turn into this new world. This series is my hope that it will encourage others to continue creating and remind them of the many blessings in their lives. Light always shines through the darkness.”

Ballet on Film is on exhibition at Treehouse in Honolulu through August 4. For an in-depth look at the project, visit Cho’s website, Instagram, or watch her Photo Talk with Treehouse on YouTube.

Image credits: Lisa Cho