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Photography Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn Bencicova takes beautiful portraits of dancers with Down's syndrome

The photographer captures the dancers of Culture Device as they perform an adaptation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

A group of dancers with Down's syndrome from collective Culture Device have celebrated the 106th anniversary of Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, by performing a reinterpretation of one of the most contentious ballet performances of its time for NOWNESS, directed by Adam Csoka Keller.

As Keller told NOWNESS, at the time, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring “broke all the rules in composition and choreography, marking an important cultural moment in history.” Riots broke out as a response and critics branded the choreography and composition as unconventional and erratic. To honour the radical spirit of the first iteration, this performance, under the creative mentorship of The Royal Ballet, similarly looks to challenge perceptions and prejudice by giving over the stage to a group of performers who might have previously been overlooked within mainstream ballet groups.

There to capture the event was photographer Evelyn Bencicova who talks to us here about the brilliance and beauty of The Rite’s talented and fearless performers

Tell me about The Rite and how you came to be involved in the project?
Evelyn BencicovaAbout two years ago Daniel Vais contacted me about working on Radical Beauty - a photographic project featuring models with Down Syndrome. This concept sparked a curiosity in me to get to know the artists of this group and create a project based on personal experience rather than a superficial and voyeuristic observation of a group of people. With Adam, we began following the journey of Culture Device through London's clubs, stages and galleries and so it felt absolutely natural when Daniel suggested that we join the creative team behind The Rite. At the time, The Rite of Spring challenged all the expectations of what classical ballet was. The artists of Culture Device face the same challenges in today’s society. Their movement is full of life, less controlled thus more emotional showing life in its full expression.

What was it like working with Culture Device?
Evelyn Bencicova: This takes me back to my first Drag Syndrome party (which is a party that’s also organised by Culture Device). Having had very little experience with people of learning disabilities we honestly did not know what to expect. This is an important memory because it reflects how most people approach individuals with special needs. It includes the feeling of pity, a certain type of guilt and fear of “looking”, which speaks to a larger insecurity around even the slightest amount of contact meaning you might inadvertently “other” a person. The moment we entered the space those feelings evaporated. It was probably the most honest, natural and positive party I have ever attended. There was no wall between us when I stopped building one internally. Dancing together created the flow of energy– pure, inviting and empowering. People with Down Syndrome are known to have “special needs” but they also possess “special talents”. In everyday interactions, we learned a lot about emotional strength, support, dedication and empathy- all things that are sometimes lacking in today’s society.

What was the energy like on the day?
Evelyn Bencicova: Using the words of one of our performers it was: “amazing, fabulous, and divine!” We visited several rehearsals and watched as each of the dancers progressed. All of the dancers have incredible work and training ethics. The rehearsals transcended a “dance practice” and became about the performer really living the piece and fully embodying the characters. We observed them holding and supporting each other, without any ego, without judgement. As Daniel puts it: “their good energy is simply infectious, you cannot resist to laugh and dance with them. Wherever they appear they create a brighter and better world.”

What did yourself and Adam Csoka Keller want to achieve with this work?  
Evelyn Bencicova: We wanted to use photography and film to express what we’d experienced during the rehearsals and performance. We portrayed the dancers both in their stage character and as actors, professionals, ready to share their talent with the world. The aim was not to create a “charity project” but an artistic collaboration in dialogue with the Culture Device. To quote Sarah Gord, the main character of The Rite: “Yes, I have Down Syndrome but that is not all that I am.”

How do you hope viewers feel when they see this your images?
Evelyn Bencicova: We are aware that The Rite of Spring is not an easy ballet and our film captures the skill of emotional range the dancers delivered during the performance. Through the photographs, I simultaneously observed streams of courage and moments of doubt, stretches of joy and the momentary heaviness that worry brings. I wanted to display a wide spectrum of beauty in all its complexity. We hope to show these complicated qualities and to help challenge prejudices and change attitudes towards artists (and people) with disabilities both visible and invisible.

How was the use of make-up, costume and set integral to your vision?
Evelyn Bencicova: Ukrainian artist Masa Reva, oversaw costume and set design as well as the concept for make-up, which was inspired by original Rite of Spring by Ballet Russe. Art-direction for this piece was based on pagan Slavic rituals of rural Russia, where people would celebrate the advent of spring ending with a sacrifice that fertilises the soil of the earth. It was important for us to pay the tribute to original ballet but in turn, we also desired to create something contemporary and our own.  

Why do you think we need more representation of groups like Culture Device within beauty?
Evelyn Bencicova: Artists of Culture Device have a message to share and they want the world to listen, to look, to come closer and to join in. They want to show their faces without people turning away. The artists portrayed do not wish to hide their medical condition, nor do they want to be defined by it. Like everyone, they want to be celebrated for their strengths and understood in their moments of vulnerability. Together we want to confront prejudices, stigmas and conventions, and head towards a more diverse and inclusive future in the world of arts as well as in everyday life.