A Vibrant Career at the Ballet, but With a Lens and Not Toeshoes

October 8, 2011
The New York Times
Meribah Knight

Content

Herbert Migdoll, newly designated as director of special projects, giving a tour at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago on Sept. 19.

 

It was early March 1968 and Eisenhower was losing a long fight against coronary heart disease. That same week, Time Magazine slated Mr. Migdoll’s photo of the Joffrey’s new ballet “Astarte” as its cover. That is, unless bigger news happened.

“We prayed,” Mr. Migdoll said, “so that he would live until we got the cover.”

On March 15, “Astarte” made it onto Time’s front, the first and only cover the magazine has devoted to a ballet production. Eisenhower lived until the end of the month.

As a photographer and graphic designer — and unofficially as a visual artist in residence — Mr. Migdoll has worked for the Joffrey since 1968. He photographed productions, designed sets and graphics and essentially fostered the company’s image alongside its founders, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Migdoll, 67, took on yet another title, director of special projects. In this new role, he hopes to expand the company’s reach into visual arts. His first project is discussing with Paris officials the possibility of displaying his 300-foot-long painting of the Joffrey dancer Fabrice Calmels along the bank of the Seine. The piece made its debut last year at ArtPrize 2010, in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I feel that my work now for the company is more as a fine artist,” Mr. Migdoll said. “But it didn’t start out that way.”

From the Joffrey’s experimental beginnings in New York City to its relocation to Chicago in 1995, Mr. Migdoll has been with the company longer than any other employee, working under Joffrey, Arpino and now, Ashley Wheater. He is the last link between the company’s past and present.

On Oct. 12, the Joffrey’s 2011-12 season opens with the world premiere of “Don Quixote” by the Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov.

“To say that we have a photographer on staff is not accurate,” said Christopher Clinton Conway, the Joffrey’s executive director. “To say we have an artist on staff is not accurate. He is so much more than all those things.”

The youngest of four siblings, Mr. Migdoll was born in 1944 in Jersey City to a Russian father and Polish mother who “almost loved” his decision to become an artist.

As a student in New York City, he studied architecture at Pratt Institute, then painting at Cooper Union. Summer arts programs at New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, followed. In 1969 he received a Fulbright scholarship to Denmark for photography. Still, he managed to fall a few credits short of a bachelor’s degree.

New York in the 1960s was just too exciting, he said. There were nights out in the Village at The Cedar Tavern, drinking alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Frank Stella. There were performances at Judson Church — “the avant-garde of the avant-garde,” as Mr. Migdoll refers to it.

In 1965, after photographing Joffrey dancers in a series of time-lapse images, Mr. Migdoll became a fixture at the forward-thinking company.

“Herbert, I love everything you’ve showed me,” Mr. Migdoll recalled Joffrey saying when he showed him the images. “But can you take real pictures, too?”

“I can,” Mr. Migdoll said he replied. “But I don’t really like to.”

In many ways, Mr. Migdoll’s relationship with the Joffrey resembles the eight years Pablo Picasso spent collaborating with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It was a meeting of the minds: visual art with dance.

“I felt that dancers were the most interesting thing in motion that I could turn my camera toward and create these abstract images,” Mr. Migdoll said of his photographs.

In the Joffrey’s building at Randolph and State Streets, Mr. Migdoll’s paintings and photographs hang on every floor, all narratives of movement with the passage of time at their center. In some, time-lapse photographs deconstruct dancers’ movements. Bodies become elongated paint strokes, expressing the essence of motion.

“What draws me to his work precisely is that he is coming from a background of dance and all his work is about movement,” said Ingrid Fassbender, a private consultant and independent curator who works closely with Mr. Migdoll.

Commuting on his black cruiser bicycle — sometimes in a faded leather jacket and a bright bow tie and always in sensible shoes — Mr. Migdoll travels between his Bridgeport studio, the Joffrey’s Loop headquarters and his rented room in Pilsen.

“He seems to know exactly what he is about and what he wants to do,” Ms. Fassbender said. “I think he really follows his passion that way.”

Outside his work, Mr. Migdoll’s life is one of austerity. He has never married. His rented room provides him a place to sleep but not much else. His real life exists where his work is — his studio and the Joffrey.

“One of the things I love about Herbert is that nothing is too big or too much,” said Mr. Conway, the Joffrey’s executive director. “That is truly living for your art. And it’s all that Herbert is.”

mknight [at] chicagonewscoop [dot] org