Tyler Udall, photographer, on the wigs in a Jerome Robbins’ ballet, The Cage.
GB Tell me why you’ve chosen these wigs.
TU I used to be a ballet dancer. I saw this particular ballet, The Cage, at a time when I was going through a noteworthy emotional growth spurt. I was a teenager, and I’d just moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet. It was such an exciting time. EVERYTHING was new. This was the very first piece I saw the New York City Ballet perform. The Cage completely shattered any preconceived notion I had of what classical ballet was. By the end of that first performance, ballet (which I already LOVED), became the most magical and limitless art form. These wigs are the perfect embodiment of what makes this work so special and against the grain. I usually find costumes very distracting, especially something as cumbersome as a wig, but these headpieces were so counter-intuitive to what people generally associate with classical ballet. The Cage was created in the early 1950s by Jerome Robbins, yet it’s still extremely modern, aggressive and even controversial. The score is a Stravinsky violin concerto which sounds a lot like alchemy… to me anyway. It’s incredibly fierce and intense but the dichotomy is there’s also something very innocent and delicate going on there. It’s interpretive, but I see The Cage as a love story about insects, animal nature and inner conflict. Specifically, its about a female tribe of insects who use their sexuality to hunt and then kill their prey. The ballet opens up with this “Queen” and a stage full of her insect army. The dancers are wearing the most DISGUSTING rat-nest wigs (think Tina Turner after an amphetamine fuelled bender). They are beautiful to me in a really grotesque way. To see that kind of irreverence on a world-class ballet stage was eye-opening, to say the least. The Prima Ballerina who plays “The Novice”, comes out wearing a very short black wig. Now that I make the connection, we actually have the same haircut. Weird. ANYWAY, at first glance I thought I was watching a boy wearing pointe shoes, (which at the time I thought was so revolutionary), but it was Wendy Whelan. Wendy subsequently became one of my all time favourite dancers. She was a bug. A repugnant, preternatural, insect-creature-thing…but SO BEAUTIFUL! I’d never seen a ballerina go that far with her character before. For lack of a better word, she was transcendent. She really touched a piece of my soul that night and at the risk of sounding trite, she changed me. These wigs pulled me into a different creative space. They’re the icing on the cake of this wonderful ballet.
GB So was it your love for the costumes that made you go into styling?
TU An injury ended my career quite early and fashion was really the only other thing that I knew. In retrospect, street fashion was always something I’d enjoyed and instinctively it made sense to me. The styling thing just fell into place without me even really knowing what a stylist was. I love collaboration and when I was in fashion school at F.I.T, I started interning with Marc Jacobs. I got to work with all these incredible editors and stylists and spent a lot of time drinking in these beautiful magazine stories. The publications in the late 90s/ early 2000’s opened my eyes to a whole new universe, in a similar way that ballet had.
GB . Do you feel it’s okay to be as passionate about fashion as you were about ballet, or is that more frowned upon?
TU It’s only been in the last year and a half that I’ve had this real renaissance with my love of fashion. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more self-assured, but I confidently admit that I adore fashion and great design. I love the psychology behind it. No one criticizes you when you want to have a beautiful house or a beautiful car but so many people still criticize you if you want to have beautiful clothes. But these things are on our bodies and they’re that instant reflection of who you are to the world. I’d say that’s pretty important. So whether you want to dress up or not, that’s one’s prerogative, but to frown on someone who searches for beauty through personal style seems so absurd to me. Fashion is such a direct reflection of a current social and economic mood. It creatively answers psychological questions that we’re grappling with as a society. People don’t tend to pay attention to it on that level. You can look at clothing throughout history and have such a clear vision into what was going on politically and culturally. I think that’s quite cool.
GB Does it bother you that things go in and out of style? So something you create can seem beautiful one day but not the next?
TU When I was styling I worked predominantly with fine art photographers. I tended to collaborate with them better because we shared a sensibility and more often than not, an obsession with casting our versions of the most “beautiful” people. I only used proper agency-represented models when I was forced to by a client or by circumstance, and those are the images I don’t enjoy looking back at now. There was no authenticity in those particular shoots. Beauty is so subjective and to say that there is a shelf life or one specific archetype deemed beautiful seems weird. Now that I’m taking photographs, I think what makes a person beautiful is their energy. So to come full circle to your question, I think beautiful things tend to be timeless.
GB Could you take a beautiful picture of someone you don’t like?
TU It could be an interesting project! Great idea! I reckon I’d get a stronger end result photographing someone I don’t like versus someone I have zero attachment to. I’m always sensitive to the slightest shifts in people’s energy, as well as my own. That’s what I hope I’m documenting in my photographs. If I don’t like someone, that’s going to be palpable in the image, I would imagine anyway. I do some self-portraits from time to time. The ones I like best tend to be from a time when I was quite disgusted with myself. I think the camera helps me see more clearly.
GB Do you think you will always find these wigs beautiful because they remind you of this revelation about ballet?
TU Yes. More than a revelation about ballet, it was a revelation about myself and what I could do. Art seemed so limitless when I saw those wigs.
GB Do you think ballet can continue to be revelatory or revolutionary?
TU I do. I think there are some interesting shifts happening at the moment. There’s a new generation coming into directorial roles. Dance as a phenomenon has gained such momentum in the last few years, recruiting a new generation of enthusiasts and patrons. People like Benjamin Millepied, now Directing the Paris Opera-Ballet, are preserving classical excellence at the same time evolving the tradition by making new works that cross disciplines. The collaborations that are happening now are incredible. Very current artists, designers, musicians etc, are creating original work within a classical ballet context. I think these creative conversations have the power to cultivate and bridge a new generation and inspire revelation.
GB And now you’re working visually, do you miss the music?
TU I actually still listen to classical music all the time. But something I do miss is having an open space to move around in. One of the most interesting things about a studio or a stage is that its only purpose is to occupy it with your body. That doesn’t exist anywhere else. I miss having the open space to throw my body around with abandon.
GB When you were dancing did you feel as though you were an object of beauty?
TU When I was doing it well, the answer would be yes. I was so hungry for those moments! I think every dancer is. That’s the dangerous drug about ballet. You get these little glimmers, where everything aligns; the music, the lights, your performance, the energy, the crowd. When all those elements come together, its just so beautiful and even otherworldly. The feeling is fleeting and I think most dancers are chasing it. I did feel like an object of beauty in those split seconds. Just for the record I could probably count those moments on two hands. They are rare!
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
TU Something that elicits a genuine emotion, even if that’s disgust. For me it has to be that palpable connection to the object, whether you’re coveting it or repulsed by it. If it has that magnetic strength as an object, then it’s beautiful to me.