Last fall, images of picturesque ballerinas graced the walls of Cool Beans for Palmetto Pointe Project’s first gallery showing. The unique and captivating photography collection showcased local dancers in unconventional settings far from the confines of the dance studio. Local photographer Jason Ayer is the creator of the project, which has already developed a strong Facebook following.
Jason’s interest in photographing dancers began as a high school student in Charleston, where he did technical work for the Youth Company. He moved to Columbia in the 1980s to try his hand in theater, performing at Town Theatre for a decade. “I did a little bit of everything – singing, dancing and acting,” he says.
Now photographer for U.S.C.’s Dance Program, as well as Cheerleading, Equestrian and Cross Country, Jason has turned his interest in photographing dancers into a career. The father of two laughs and says, “If I were 20 years younger I’d do it for the women; now I do it for the art.”
Palmetto Pointe Project is similar to New York’s “The Ballerina Project,” which features images of dancers amid elaborate New York cityscapes and has inspired photographers nationwide. U.S.C. dancer Kathryn Miles first brought the project to Jason’s attention while he was shooting pictures of her for his portfolio. She has now been featured in many photographs for the Palmetto Pointe Project, along with Mindy Chester and Katie Callahan. They were the catalysts for the project, Jason says. “I may be the eye of this particular storm, but they are the wind and rain and thunder and lightning, and without them this project is not much of anything.” Most of his subjects are performers with the U.S.C. Dance Company, but he is interested in expanding the project to include other dancers.
Jason says he doesn’t mimic “The Ballerina Project.” Instead, he focuses on showcasing statewide scenery and the dancers as individuals. “In ‘The Ballerina Project,’ the landscape often overpowers the dancer,” he says. While the Palmetto Pointe Project initially focused on locations in the Columbia area, bringing to light places that most people have overlooked, it now has expanded statewide. “Ours is a state that has both historical and geographical significance,” Jason says. “Columbia is but a part of that overall canvas.”
Jason says that dance photography is about capturing the personalities of the dancers. Sometimes he makes this happen by taking dancers out of their elements and placing them in settings that contradict their personalities or challenge their creativity. He knows his dancers well enough that when he scouts a location, he thinks, “I know who I need to bring here. I know who is going to make this work.”
Jason involves the dancers in the creative process as much as possible. “What ends up on the canvas depends on them,” he says. On a typical photo shoot, he meets a dancer at a location and then focuses his lens as her inner creative spirit is revealed through choreography and movement. Often he will point out the parameters of the shoot and tell her, “There’s your stage. Go to work.” Not only do the dancers drive the photo shoot, but they also are given the final say on all photographs. In fact, images are named for the dancers and not the places. He respects their opinions and will not display any images that have not previously been approved. “If the dancer doesn’t like it then I’m not going to use it,” he says. The dancers also share in the profits of any images sold in which they appear
Photographs from Palmetto Pointe Project, many of which are for sale, are uniquely South Carolina. The project’s slogan is “See some familiar and not-so-familiar places through the eyes of a dancer,” and as it continues to grow, it will include a website, a calendar and a coffee table book, all of which will interpret the Palmetto State from a dancer’s perspective.
Editor’s note: Be sure to check out Palmetto Pointe Project on Facebook.