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Remembering Nan Melville Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

8 April 2022

The dance photographer Nan Mellville, whose images documented the art for four decades, died last month in Manhattan. She was 72.

She photographed the Bolshoi Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Royal Ballet of Britain, American Ballet Theater and other well-known companies, capturing dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Alvin Ailey star Dwana Smallwood.

But she also captured the traditional Venda dancers of South Africa and avant-garde dance. Anything that moved (to music), in short.

She branched out into video as well, making the short documentary Nrityagram: For the Love of Dance in 2010 about a dance school and ensemble in India.

'Was I born a couple of decades too early?'

She was born in Kemberley, South Africa and became interested in photography as a teen. She studied drama and English at Rhodes University in Makhanda, South Africa, where she took photographs of the plays performed there.

Those photos were "very well received," she wrote, "and planted a seed of an idea." Which was that her hobby could provide a livelihood.

She taught high school English, drama and speech in South Africa after graduation. But in 1981 she got a job as a photographer for the Performing Arts Council of Transvaal, a regional arts organization.

Five years later, she went to New York on a trip and decided to move there, starting a freelance career centered on dance.

"Since childhood," she once said, "images, the movement of light, colors, impressions -- both still and moving -- have been most important to me."

Septime Webre, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, who worked with her when he was artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey in the 1990s, said that she "knew how to capture movement in ways that distilled the intention of the dancer, but, more importantly, her images abounded with her love affair with dance."

That love of dance had plenty to feast on in New York but it also took her back to South Africa and on to Asia, Europe and Cuba. She was working on a documentary of Cuban dance at her death.

"Was I born a couple of decades too early?" she wondered on her Web site. "Otherwise, I would surely have been born with an iPhone in my hand -- only for taking photos, you understand!!!"

She is survived by her sister Gill Kenyon.

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