Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Step by Step @L. Parker Stephenson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. 15 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 1982 and printed in 2016. Each is sized roughly 11×13. A monograph of this body of work was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1989. (Installation shots below.)

The show also includes 5 gelatin silver prints from the artist’s earlier projects, on view in the side room. These works were made between 1971 and 1980 and printed in 2012 or 2016. Each is sized roughly 10×15 (or reverse). No edition information was provided on the checklist.

Comments/Context: As a father with a teenage daughter who is a ballet dancer, I suppose I have a certain degree of behind-the-scenes knowledge and experience when it comes to the day to day work of being an aspiring dancer. I have watched the countless classes and rehearsals, stood by during the auditions, celebrated and anguished over coveted roles received and not, fussed over the pointe shoes and sparkly costumes, and attended the Nutcrackers and other performances, just like any other parent traveling on this same road. So when I visited this show of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s sensitive 1980s era images of the Connell-Brown Dancing School, I could immediately relate to the nuanced stories they had to tell.

Taken in North Shields, a working-class neighborhood of Newcastle in northern England, the photographs largely eschew the grand patterns and graceful choreography of final stagings, instead taking in the more mundane routines of daughters (and mothers) going to class and getting ready for various performances. What they capture best are the interlinked ideas of dance as a process, where the end results are the culmination of long hours of dedication and determination, and of dance as a community, where the friendships that are made are as important and vibrant as any made in school or at home, especially in a setting where the economic and social opportunities are otherwise limited.

Konttinen’s pictures track the girls in three separate locations – at home, in the dance studio, and at the show venues – and this consistent up-close intimacy over an extended period of time tells us that the artist developed an easy going sense of trust with these families. At home, the bonds between mothers and daughters are expressed with love and affection (especially in matching outfits), and the primacy of ballet permeates the surroundings. Emma jumps on her bed, Lucrezia decorates her walls with endless certificates and corrections, and Tanya shows off her precise steps for Granddad, who is actually asleep in his chair. In the studio, the world is much more structured, with girls lined up to receive their diplomas or practicing modeling steps in front of a panel of judges. But Konttinen finds the hidden joy there too, from the shy smile of a girl being awarded her certificate to the cute toddler trying to mimic the leg extended barre work of a nearby dancer.

Her images from the shows are the most layered, offering the dual perspectives of mothers and daughters in the same frame. As the girls linger and receive help with their hair buns, moms chat, manage costumes, or take the edge off with a pint (in some cases, the shows were staged at a club/pub). As the performances gets started, the youngest girls ham it up in the wings while last minute mascara is applied and tutu-clad jitters are calmed, the backstage chaos reaching a point of crescendo. From their subtle expressions, it’s clear that the moms run the gamut from ruthlessly focused to arch-browed seen-this-all-before jaded, while the daughters seem universally expectant and nervous. It’s this authentic mix of simultaneous reactions that gives the pictures their enduring humanity. From one who has witnessed versions of this melee many times before, the photographs capture the spirit of the scene with pitch perfect fidelity – Konttinen has bottled the essential universality of these rituals, savoring the pride, companionship, and supportive collective effort that lies within the repeated tasks.

Konttinen’s Step by Step was apparently one of the inspirations for the popular film (and Broadway show) Billy Elliot, the book given to the cast and crew as a guide to the physical and emotional landscape of the story. Given the warmth and quiet humor in these pictures, that connection seems entirely clear. Inside the constraints of this humble working class existence, the dance studio became a place for dreams to be pursued, and Konttinen’s humanist photographs document both the aspiration and the collective commitment invested in those precious moments of escape. They remind us about the positive power of wishing and working, even when the leotard doesn’t quite ft.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3800 or $4500 each. Konttinen’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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