Behind the Scenes of The Grace Issue, Meet Ballet Photographer Karolina Kuras
The curtains open and the spotlights turn on. You sit there in the theater and watch as ballet dancers glide across the stage, a frenzy of tutus and pirouettes. With each jump and turn, you feel the vibrations echo throughout the theater, the momentum stirring your soul. This is where you will find Karolina Kuras, a dance photographer in Toronto, Ontario, who waits for just the right moment before clicking the shutter on her camera.
With abstract dance poses and layers of rippling wardrobe, Karolina’s dance portraits are moody and provocative. As the photographer for the National Ballet of Canada, her work showcases the heart and soul of dancers, rather than simple ballet poses. The energy in her photographs make you feel as if you might be sucked in; if the dancer moves to the right, you feel yourself moving along with them.
Karolina’s early years were spent living in a Buddhist commune in the mountains of Poland. Surrounded by artists, she found herself helping out with bake sales, making jewelry, or dancing with others in the open meditation studios. She laughed, recalling how she “pretty much had a flower crown on [her] head every day. [She] was a total flower child.” Poland was socialist at the time, and despite food rations, her community grew their food together. Each family had one bedroom to themselves in a home that everyone shared together. Her memories of this time are only positives ones, and it was here that her creative desires were born.
It was an isolating change when her family packed up and moved to a small town outside of Toronto, Canada. Karolina’s family found themselves in a quiet apartment, quite the opposite to their life prior. Her memories here aren’t nearly as vivid as Poland, but with her mother as a painter and her father as a musician, art and photography books filled their home. She loved looking through the books and how the images could transport you into a particular emotion, which would later become a huge source of inspiration for her photography work. Her creative drive led her to take dance classes, and soon she also received her very first camera, a Polaroid cool cam. The two hobbies consumed her.
While she absolutely loved dancing, Karolina was also painfully shy, and found dance performances to be quite difficult. She preferred photographing her dancer friends and capturing their moving bodies on film, something a little more behind the scenes from being on stage herself. In high school, she began working as a darkroom tech and by the time she was 19, had successfully started her own photography business. She was taking photos of everything from engagements to weddings to babies.
Soon, she was photographing over 30 weddings a year, all of them piled into Ontario’s short summer months. Though she loved what she did and was grateful to share such special moments with so many couples, she became burnt out by her busy schedule and knew her heart was elsewhere. She missed her community with dancers, and being able to photograph them as well.
Karolina took the leap and moved to Toronto, where she started her 52-week passion project. Not knowing anyone, she reached out to a few dancers to see if she could photograph them. Her plan was to photograph one new dancer each week for an entire year. While it took some time for her to break into the dance scene, eventually her work began spreading like wildfire, and she was working with new dancers each week. By week 6 of her project, the National Ballet of Canada noticed her work and contacted her to start working for them. She’s been with them ever since.
What’s unique about Karolina’s work comes from her background as a dancer. For photographers who are not dancers, they rely heavily on the dancer striking the correct pose that they can then photograph. The result of this can often leave the photos looking stagnant, two-dimensional or flat. Being a dancer herself, she already knows the correct moves. This allows the ballerinas to do what they do best (dance), and Karolina can then photograph them at just the right moment. This process allows her to capture not only the dancer’s pose but the heart, soul, and emotion of the movements they are doing. When looking at her photographs, it is almost as if you can feel the wind of the dancer come out of the picture and brush across your face.
When Karolina isn’t taking photos, you will find her dancing at a dance class, or perhaps cooking with friends, where it is inevitable a kitchen dance party will occur. You might be seated next to her at the ballet amongst hundreds of others, getting lost in the performance. It is experiencing something so grand that fuels Karolina’s desire to continue taking photos. Those around her inspire her, and much like her childhood in Poland, she finds comfort in being surrounded by so many creative individuals.