Whenever I research a potential topic for a future picture – I do a quick google search and usually find approximately 3,758,923 hits with that exact image already made. That’s actually quite frustrating when you try to accomplish something that’s even remotely unique. It’s all been done before, right? ….Wrong! When I recently got the opportunity to photograph a tutu-dressed ballerina together with a baby rhino – it was actually a google search which came up completely empty. Zero, zip, zilch, nada – never been done before! The quick dialog I had with Dirk Badenhorst when he suggested this particular scenario went something along the lines of this: Dirk: “Would you like to come with us for a photo opportunity with a ballerina and a baby rhino?”. Me: “Are you $&%#!^@$ kidding me?”
So a few days ago I happily joined Dirk and the Stars of American Ballet team as they did their “Ballet in the Bush” show and gala at Legend Golf & Safari resort in Limpopo. Having completed 4 successful shows in Joburg’s Teatro at Montecasino already – this would be the last performance during the Stars of American Ballet visit in South Africa.
Since the proceeds from the “Ballet in the Bush” performance are all donated to The Rhino Orphanage – the team was fortunate to gain unique access to this somewhat undisclosed location (no GPS coordinates for this one…). The background for The Rhino Orphanage is obviously grim. In 2011 – 448 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone – where 80% of the worlds rhino population is located. The gruesome, illegal and completely irrational hunt for rhino horn leaves behind a tragic trail of dead rhinos – and consequently – in many cases abandoned baby rhinos too. Without the proper care – these baby rhinos face certain death – and that’s where The Rhino Orphanage comes to the rescue. Thanks to the leader of the center, Arrie van Deventer, his dedicated staff of rhino caregivers and their noble cause – the baby rhinos in the sanctuary now have a real chance of survival.
Two ballerinas, Michaela DePrince and Ashley Bouder, were brave enough to be photographed with the rhinos. Even though we are talking about rhino toddlers – they are still wild animals and have the strength to potentially break someone’s leg – so great care was obviously taken as Arrie prepared the girls for the shoot.
While we were there – Michaela DePrince elaborated on how she felt a very deep and personal bond to this particular cause – as the fate of the baby rhinos reminded her of her own story. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone during the 10 year civil war – and tragically saw her father being killed by rebel fighters and her mother dying soon after that. In Michaela’s own words – “she was one of the lucky ones” to be saved by a local orphanage in Sierra Leone and subsequently adopted by Elaine and Charles DePrince from New Jersey, USA. In the years that followed – Michaela worked hard and dedicated to realize her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina. I can highly recommend the 2011 documentary film “First Position” which features Michaela and 5 other young dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix. Michaela made her dream come true – and today she’s a successful dancer at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.
Ashley Bouder is a highly accomplished principal dancer with NYC Ballet, with thousands of fans following her on stage, on twitter and facebook. Ashley is a particularly strong and athletic dancer – which might be the reason she had the confidence to volunteer for this wildlife encounter. During the shoot – she also exhibited great flair in dealing with the animals by demonstrating calm assertiveness – even under pressure (indeed – Cesar Millan would be proud). However at one point – the two baby rhinos turned naughty and decided to have a bit of fun with Ashley & her tutu in particular – which obviously caused some commotion and a quick retreat. Yes – you can run pretty fast in those pointe shoes as well.
So despite the challenges of the harsh noon sunlight (I couldn’t use any flash or reflectors to soften or fill, since this would spook the animals) and the very limited camera angles available – I’m actually quite happy with how the images came out. Naturally the two baby rhinos didn’t take directions very well – but they did exhibit great interest in the ballerinas and we were lucky to get a few decent frames with really good interaction forming a connection between ballerina and animal. Ashley and Michaela were absolutely stunning and did a stellar performance featuring some of their signature moves. This was truly a unique experience, for the rhinos, for the ballerinas and everybody who witnessed – and it was obvious that the entire Stars of American Ballet team felt really good about the deeper purpose of their show later that evening.
For more on the Rhino Orphanage – go to http://www.facebook.com/TheRhinoOrphanage or @RhinoOrphanage on twitter. They happily accept donations.
For news on upcoming events from Joburg Ballet – go to http://www.facebook.com/SouthAfricanMzansiBallet or @JoburgBallet on twitter.