Most of you know Christopher Duggan from his dance photography column here at 4dancers which runs the last day of the month here and is titled “Finis”. What many of you may not know is that Christopher is part of a team–his wife, Nel Shelby–is a dance videographer. Today we thought we’d share a bit more about what life is like for this talented couple in the dance world…
This is Nel’s tenth season at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. She spent the summer of 2001 as a videography intern and now serves as Festival Videographer, supervising two interns and an apprentice each season. Christopher has been Festival Photographer at the Pillow since 2006. He acts as mentor for an intern during each summer festival, and this year he will participate on the faculty in a 5-day dance photography workshop led by his esteemed colleague Rose Eichenbaum.
Deeply dedicated to the preservation and promotion of dance through documentation of live performances, Nel and Christopher often team up to provide artists with the complete package for their upcoming productions. They enjoy brainstorming with artists from the inception of a work, creating behind the scenes photographs of rehearsal and generating excitement through promos, to the final production, filming performances and providing photography for press and preservation. Based in New York City, they have worked with countless emerging, established, uptown and downtown choreographers, dance venues and presenting festivals.
Both Nel and Christopher had personal relationships with dance prior to filming and photographing the art form. Nel danced from age 2 through 22 and has a bachelor’s degree in dance. She is also a certified Pilates instructor. Movement is an incredibly important part of her routine, and because she feels kinesthetically connected to the performers she films, she finds that most of her choices are instinctual and gracefully-aligned with the choreography. Christopher has developed an aesthetic that seeks to capture the heart and integrity of each choreographer’s voice within an image. He was first attracted to dance when working on the wardrobe crew for performances in college and has felt a magnetic pull from dancers ever since. He played the doundoun in a West African group Magbana and made several trips to West Africa to study drumming and dance.
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival offers a bustling season for Christopher and Nel because of its vast variety of dance and large quantity of work – each season, their responsibilities include documenting aspects of festival culture in addition to its 20 mainstage dance performances, filming, photographing and overseeing documentation of more than 100 free performances and events, and educating students about the technical and philosophical aspects of photographing and filming dance. But its the festival’s sense of magic that keeps both artists clamoring for more each year. Situated on the beautiful Berkshires hills, nestled in majestic trees and rooted in the history of founder and modern dance visionary Ted Shawn, the Pillow is steeped in tradition but forward-thinking in its worldly and contemporary curation. It’s a place to grow, learn and find inspiration. And for Nel and Christopher, it’s home. They now own a cabin on the same road as the Pillow and cherish the thought that their daughter is growing up at the festival each summer.
4dancers talked with both of them a bit about their lives and their work with one another…
How did you and Nel wind up working together?
I rented a digital camera for a weekend client shoot with a Pilates teacher who needed portraits and shots of her using equipment in the studio. Nel was shooting a dance concert in Manhattan that evening, and I asked if she thought the choreographer would let me shoot some images. I was new to the digital camera and thought it would be great to practice on a subject that I was unfamiliar with. I started photographing and realized that shooting dance is all about being completely in the moment and present with the dancers. That kind of intense presence (authenticity?) really hooked me.
What was the first project you did as a team?
Even before we officially worked together, we were working as a team. I was always behind the scenes giving Nel my opinions on her edits (not that she always wanted them), and we consulted with each other about enhancing client experiences and defining expectations. I actually don’t remember the first official job we did together – it all just happened so naturally.
What does Nel bring to the partnership?
I have always admired how hard she works and the care she has for her clients. She is so serious about her work and wants her clients to have the best. Nel brings an incredible sense of patience and focus to her job. Not to mention that she has much more technical know-how than I do. I get frustrated with a lot of the tech stuff, but Nel is an expert troubleshooter.
What do you admire most about Nel’s work?
Nel shoots dance with a sensibility and talent like no one else. She moves the camera with the dancers as though she’s dancing with them on stage. She has a deep understanding of choreography and movement, and all of her choices in filming are instinctual and right-on. Filming is another physical extension of her understanding of dance.
What do you admire most about Christopher’s work?
I love the passion behind Christopher’s work, and many times, the rawness. People often say he captures moments that others don’t see, and I agree with that. Christopher has a theater background and is not a trained dancer, but I am often in awe of the moments he captures while photographing dance. He finds the full extent of the movement, and it gets me every time.
What do you two do together in your time off?
Well, to be honest, we are working on finding downtime! Time off is a buzz word in our house that sparks much excitement when it happens. We love to spend time at our home in the Berkshires or stroll around the Upper West Side drinking lattes. We both love Central Park and spend time there whenever possible. When the opportunity to travel arises, we try to scoot out of town, and most of all, we enjoy spending time with our nearly 4-year-old daughter.
What does Christopher bring to the partnership?
Calm! I can be a bit high-strung at times, and Christopher has always been very grounded. Even when Christopher has a lot going on, you wouldn’t know it – he remains centered and is always willing to pitch in wherever he needs to. I really appreciate this about him. Christopher also brings a lot of spunk and ideas. He is a born entrepreneur and excellent at marketing, so I am always looking to him for ideas on new ways to get the Nel Shelby Productions name out there. I can’t imagine doing any of this without him.
Can you share a favorite memory from a time you worked with Christopher?
I loved working with him on our recent Keigwin + Company marketing video. We’re friends with the whole company and had so much fun during the shoot. Christopher took on the role of cinematographer, which gave me a little break so I could focus on the editing. And every summer, we make wonderful memories at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival together. The Pillow is our home away from home. It’s a great working environment, because we feel so comfortable there but are challenged each and every year. We aren’t assigned to work together during the festival, but there’s always a little overlap and collaboration, and those moments are so much fun.