British Artist describes sculpting dancers of The Royal Ballet as a “humbling experience”.
Michael James Talbot has worked closely with principal dancers Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson as part of his Royal Ballet Collection. “This collaboration was a wonderful dialogue between sculpture and dance that allowed me to work with artists of the highest calibre from The Royal Ballet” says Talbot.
In describing working with Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson, Talbot says, “it was a real privilege to work with these exceptional artists. They are the epitome of grace and effortless precision. Which of course masks the physical effort and pain they must go through every day to attain and maintain their level of performance.”
Talbot, 61, based in Derbyshire studied at the Royal Academy of Art, winning the coveted Landseer prize in 1983. He later studied under the great sculptors, Colin Melbourne ARCA and Dame Elizabeth Frink RA. Talbot has been sculpting the human form for over 30 years and has a particular passion for dance, but he says that “these [Royal Ballet] dancers are figuratively, a different evolved athlete. I was expecting an athletic figure, but it isn’t that it’s a figure perfectly attuned to a set of movements, truly exceptional”.
Talbot spends around 300 hours in creating each sculpture in clay, before being cast in bronze. He spent many hours behind the scenes at The Royal Opera House with the dancers, studying their form and movements to establishing precisely how he would capture them. “It’s a truly humbling experience to be allowed behind the scenes and be up close with the dancers”, he said. “They are not only extremely talented, exceptional artists with enormous dedication and spectacular physiques, but they are all such genuinely nice people”.
Over the years Talbot has created many sculptures of ballet dancers, but given the opportrunity to work with The Royal Ballet, Talbot said he wanted to “stay clear of the traditional image of a ballerina in a tutu”. “I think that image has been rather overdone, and I want The Royal Ballet Collection to be representative of the more contemporary ballet”, he said.
In his sculpture of Cuthbertson, Talbot said he was “looking to create a figure in animation”. He said, “I wanted to capture the spirit and emotion of her movement and this piece is like three frames of a film. Each still capturing a moment in time, but when taken in its entirety gives the wonderful fluidity of the movement”.
He first started working with Edward Watson in December 2012 when they met in the dance studios of the Royal Opera House. In describing his first meeting, Talbot said “I remember thinking – The dancer, a blank rehearsal room, with a mirrored wall and a piano. What a wonderful blank canvas. Or to a sculptor – the wire and lump of clay”.
This initial session allowed Michael to determine what the study of Edward would look like. “Within a few minutes of exploring possible shapes and movements, I saw Edward’s discipline and delight in the structure, form and balance that are the essential elements in figurative expression. The final image was distilled and is a study in stillness which I have never witnessed in any model, stillness which is not the absence of movement but is a state of grace”.
When I came away from our first session I was certain of two things, this was a working environment where there is no compromise and the image I would sculpt would be “in rehearsal”.
In addition to the Cuthbertson and Watson sculptures, Talbot has so far created another two pieces – ‘Callisto’ and ‘Juliet’. He said, “Callisto is inspired by one of the moons of Jupiter, something free in space but also caught in a captivating gravity.” This piece was created by Talbot as a tribute to the wonderfully talented Jeanetta Laurence, the former Associate Director of the Royal Ballet, who received an OBE for services to dance in the New Year’s Honours List 2015.
“I was extremely privileged to have had Jeanetta’s input in the final stages of creating this piece. To have received the advice and technical input of a woman as experienced and successful as Jeanettta in ensuring the accuracy and integrity of this dance study was indeed a pleasure and an honour.
Talbot’s sculpture of Juliet is inspired by the character in the classic MacMillan-choreographed ballet. “With this sculpture I attempt a synthesis of movements and light that are not any one rendering of a particular ballet movement or position but rather a fixed animation” said Talbot.
“It is probably fair to say I am a perfectionist”, says Talbot, whose artwork is well known for its exquisite detail and anatomical precision. This accuracy and attention to detail is an important factor in The Royal Ballet collection, as Talbot explained, “With each piece I am careful to ensure that the poise and posture of the dancer is captured as precisely as possible and I work closely with The Royal Ballet to achieve this”. Talbot takes his sculpture at various stages to be carefully scrutinised by the expert and experienced eyes of the Royal Ballet principals and he says, “I will often make minute adjustments to ensure the highest degree of integrity in the final study”.
This high degree of technical accuracy in the artwork is not only important to the artistic integrity but is also essential in attaining The Royal Ballet stamp.