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Making Swan Lake

I’ve wanted to shoot a dancer on the water for the longest time, so when I found out that our Theatre Ballet would be presenting “Swan Lake”, I knew that I finally had my opportunity.  Shani Robison, the Director of BYU’s Theatre Ballet, liked the concept and we set about to make it happen. My idea was to put the dancer on a platform about an inch below the water, and take the photo at sunset with a simple background. I used Google Earth to scout all the small lakes within an hour or so of campus, and I found one that was about 45 minutes away. Early one morning I went up to see it for myself and found a spot that would allow me to get the shot I wanted in about 2-3 feet of water.

Next came the platform. Stability was the most important thing about the setup, because I didn’t want the ballerina to end up in the lake instead of on top of it. My dad is a general contractor, so of course I went to him for ideas on how to make this happen. What we settled on was a metal platform that is used by guys that hang drywall. It was about 12 inches wide by 4 feet long with very sturdy adjustable legs.

Bella Torgerson and Todd Wakefield find the perfect place for the platform in the mud. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

My plan was to set the platform in the mud where the water was 2-3 feet deep and then carry the dancer out to the platform. I would light the shot with my battery powered Einstein lights, held by students wearing waders. We would arrive at the lake an hour or so before sunset so that we would be set up and ready to knock out a few different poses when the light was at its best.

Todd Wakefield tests the lighting before sunset. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

Weather was one of the biggest challenges we faced on this shot. I had to reschedule the shoot several times because of Utah’s bad October weather, so when the weather and our schedules finally aligned, we had very little time to get everything ready.

We got to the site a little late, so we had to hurry and set things up. I had our dancer, Charis Dexter, try out the platform on the shore before she got her tutu on, just to make sure she felt comfortable on top of it. The tutu, specially prepared just for our shoot, was covered in intricate designs and was very delicate, so we waited to the last moment to use it. Thankfully the setup was very sturdy, and everything started to come together. Bella and Todd found a good spot for the platform and Todd even helped me test the lighting.

Bella is on the left side of this frame holding an Einstein head powered by a Vagabond mini battery pack and modified by a strip box with a fabric grid.  On the shore, I had another Einstein kicking some light into fill the other side of the dancer. We adjusted the settings and carried Charis out to the platform and found out the crucial flaw to our plan. All of the planning and all of the testing didn’t take into account what that tutu would do to us. She couldn’t see her feet because of it, and because of that she felt very unsteady on the platform. We ended up having Todd stand out with her to steady her, and then he would just pop out of the frame when she was ready. I thought it would be ok, it wasn’t.

Todd steadies Charis as she gets ready to pose for the photo. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

Six seconds into the very first pose she tried to bring her foot back down to steady herself and she just barely missed the edge of the platform and gravity did the rest. Todd was right there and caught her before she went all the way in the water, and I thought we were toast.

Todd catches Charise as she falls into the icy water. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

Thankfully Charis was ok, and she was willing to try again to get the shot despite her trip into the freezing water. Her tights had a lot of mud in them, so we had to hurry and rinse the mud out and try again. We tried another pose that was more stable, but it didn’t really capture what we wanted. We went back to her posing on point and 8 minutes after taking a swim she nailed the pose and we got this photo.

The final image used to promote BYU Theatre Ballet’s upcoming Swan Lake Concert. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

As I looked at the image on the back of my camera, I knew we had the shot. I was really relieved that we were able to come away with such a fun and unique image, especially after the disaster the shoot had turned into. Hats off to Charis who kept fighting through the cold and discomfort to make it happen.

Now I hate to admit it, but I got greedy. After seeing how cool the photo was I asked her to try a few more poses and that is when it happened again. This time she went all the way in, a swan dive into Swan Lake.

We carried Charis to the shore and tried to get her warm as quickly as we could. She was a trooper and did a great job of suffering through the shoot, and we were able to come away with a great image to promote the upcoming concert. Theatre Ballet will present “Swan Lake” during “Ballet in Concert” Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the de Jong Concert Hall. A matinee will be performed Saturday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. Please check out their concert, you can click here for information on times and tickets.

Charis and Shani take a look at the photos after the shoot. Photo by Bella Torgerson/BYU Photo

Jaren Wilkey is the Manager of BYU University Photography. You can more of his work at at or follow him on twitter @jarenwilkey or on instagram at jarenwilkey.

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