Late in 2014, renowned ballet dancer-turned photographer Steven Caras generously sat down for a nearly two-hour interview with me, which resulted in a profile in the January edition of Boca Raton. It was an especially enlightening Q&A, with Caras touching on his family life, his growth as a ballet dancer, his emergence as one of the top ballet choreographers in the world, and his later incarnations as a ballet master, lecturer and fundraiser. Here are some of the comments from his illustrious life that didn’t make it into this month’s article.
On surviving his father’s disapproval: “He was afraid that I couldn’t support myself. He wanted me to go to Dartmouth; that was his dream. I was not a good student at school. I’m sure I had ADD; we didn’t know what that was then. My older brother was rebellious; I was different. My younger brother was the scholar. He won the gold in my father’s eyes.
“[My father] was a public figure, councilman of our town, a great speaker, a successful businessman, in the Army Reserves all his life after serving in the war. And when he was at a public or family gathering, he was joyous and outgoing and charming, and the minute he got home, he shut down. We tried to converse. And I was a little sassy, and I talked back. And I was angry at him because of the way he treated us, so I guess it was a perfect storm for a head-on collision.”
On working with George Balanchine: “He invited me to the company and said, ‘this is our new Greek boy. We will make him strong.’ He taught me equally as much about life, simply by watching his example of how he carried himself, how he dealt with the problems, how he handled his own illnesses, his heartaches. When Suzanne left the company, she was the love of his life. It was an unrequited life, happened a month before I entered the company.
“He mentored me in life—the way he held himself, in spite of the issues, the way he presented himself in public. We were not encouraged to wear jeans or sneakers when we traveled. We were ambassadors representing the United States of America, not him. He was more of an American in his spirit and heart than most of us that I have encountered. He made us look deeper into what freedom meant for us.”
On pursuing dance and photography careers simultaneously: “It was a real juggling act. But it was easy because I was young, and it was my passion. You know what adrenaline and the mind can do. You’re 20 years younger, and you have the energy of a child. I’m young, I’m [Balanchine’s] disciple, and he’s watching me as a dancer, honoring the fact that I want to move on, saying ‘maybe we’ll take you out of the hard parts so you’ll have more time to be in the darkroom.’ So he was hand-tailoring my future for me.”
On retiring from dance: “I retired in 1983, at 32. I felt the wings had fallen off a couple years before. A dancer knows when you’re no longer supernatural. You’re defying gravity for a living; you’re not just jumping but you’re doing the impossible for a living, and what that takes is so enormous, it’s inexplicable. But you do it, and then one day when life gets in front of you, and the clock is ticking.”
On film versus digital photography: “My romance with film will be forever, not that I’m shooting with film anymore. But there’s magic that exists in film shots and prints that’s richer, and the grain that you were forced to accept in dance, because of the low light, the high speed of the shutter, is something you accepted and worked with and tried to perfect, because lighting with film is either on or off. With digital, there’s all kinds of Band-Aid work. You can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with about any digital photograph.”
On color versus black-and-white: “I shoot color and change it to black-and-white. I like black-and-white better. It always inspires the imagination, and then you’re on a journey with the picture. You have to design your home around your art, and black-and-white inspires an inner conversation and an exploration for me. It’s magical.”
On Miami City Ballet: “Miami City Ballet is stupendous. They always have been. [Edward Villella’s] magic as a performer, an inexplicable talent, trickled down through the ranks, and no matter what generation of dancers was in there from the 80s to the present, they were magic. That was Villella’s gift as an artist. Lourdes [Lopez] is doing a great job too, passing the torch and going forward.”
On the “The Last Bow,” his famous image of George Balanchine near the end of the great choreographer’s life: “It’s the only photograph I have ever named. He died eight months later. It was our tradition at New York City Ballet at the end of the spring season to encourage him to take a bow, which he wasn’t crazy about otherwise. I was out front with my camera, in the right place at the right time. From my vantage point, you could see what the audience wouldn’t normally by privy to, and that was from an odd, obscure sort of location in the house. He was holding the curtain because his health was failing. Normally he’d open it and take charge, but here it was more of a crutch than a prop. So it’s my favorite photograph of the thousands I’ve taken.”