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Photographing Petra Haller and the Beatbox Academy for National Opera Studio in London

I was hired to document the event featuring London-based dancer, script writer, choreographer and producer Petra Haller performing tap dancing at National Opera Studio as part of the Wandsworth Art Festival at the end of June.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board

Petra comes from Germany, studied tap dancing in Spain, and is now living in the UK. She has performed in the UK, Turkey, Germany, busked around to fight her stage fright, studied piano, and collaborated with a range of artists including improvising dancing, recording live and composed music, and live painting.


One of her performances was for the Noisy Women Present series at a concert with 50-piece Noisy People Improvising Orchestra in Cambridge. During it she was dancing with two square canvas pieces attached to her arms, and together with another dancer Yanaëlle Thiran and the painter Gwendolyn Kassenaar created "Musical Fragments" - a unique live painting born in movement.


Having precisely zero ideas about tap dancing I have checked Petra’s work on her website and social media before the festival so I knew how she behaves on stage and could predict how to photograph her on the day and figure out angles and gear to be used.

tap dancing black boots with a secured sole

For example I decided to get a zoom lens which would allow me to change the frames and include more action and the background in the scene while also give me the flexibility to quickly switch to a close-up when she would have a particularly interesting expression, such as focused eyebrows, a smile and similar.


For the Wandsworth Fest Petra worked with Bermondsey-based music group BAC Beatbox Academy with three artists providing the beat and rhythm to which Petra was improvising the movement.

three young singers

I attended and photographed the rehearsal and talked to her prior to the start to find out more about her and the performance itself. I learned about a certain arm movement that precedes the turn. This sudden turn looks especially well on photos because it suggests to the viewer looking at photos (flat, 2D medium) that movement was taking place.

A dancer performs tap dancing on a small wooden board

While wandering around the room to map my potential angles, I noticed she brought along a few CDs for sale. This was the latest, May-released album "Shoulders I Stand On", created with a pianist Meg Morley and inspired by important people in Petra’s life. Since we still had a bit of time to open the doors, I thought it was a good chance for an extra promo for her, so I turned off the lights in the room and arranged the CDs around her dancing shoes on the board she’d be using later, to show this album in a context of the props used and work that was produced as a result of the dancer’s experience.

tap dancing boots arranged on a wooden board around four CDs

The performance started, the beat was floating and Petra acted fast, changing tempo and adding twirls. The sweat appeared and the light reflected in her forehead and hands. She was dancing on a worn, wooden board which emphasised the sound of steps in the room.

A dancer dances tap dancing on a small wooden board

I moved around the dancing area to get different angles and not obstruct the audience’s view.

I mostly photographed on my knees as this presented the artists from the hero angle, making them look larger than life.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board, next to her on the left there are three young singers, two males and one female singing beat box style
A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board, next to her on the left there are three young singers, two males and one female singing beat box style
A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board
three young singers perform beat box singing, two males and one female, dressed in black, two stand, one is sitting

When I had secured my agreed shots, I moved on to create abstract work using double exposure technique that produces two photos and merges them live into one.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board, next to her on the left there are three young singers, two males and one female singing beat box style

Thanks to that I could show artists in a dreamy state, blending their body parts and presenting them frozen and in movement at the same time. These photos also stand out, so that's an additional point to offer something new. I congratulated myself quietly for learning this technique.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board, next to her on the left there are three young singers, two males and one female singing beat box style

I also decided to slow the shutters in the camera for a few shots so they produce blurred photos intentionally. This was a bonus, if turned out right and if not, it didn’t hurt to have a few and learn from them.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket dances tap dancing on a small wooden board, blurred photo in slow exposure

I've been shooting another event happening at the Studio simultaneously, so I had to work really fast at Petra’s one and pay attention to timing to secure enough decent shots and provide dancing material, while also being mindful of the comedy happening at a floor above, run there via the staircase and slip in quietly behind the audience to photograph the other artist before the show ends. And then come back to dance to photograph some more.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket  finished and smiles after the performance, next to her on the left there are three young singers, two males and one female smiling

Post-show the exhausted artists breathed out and hugged each other after this successful, endorphin-filled work.

three young people two females and one male smile and hug each other

I returned home late and then edited the material in two separate pieces of software - Lightroom and Photoshop, working on colours and tidying up certain photos.

A dancer dressed in black top, black shorts and black jacket

Thanks for reading on this adrenaline-fuelled evening. Let me know in the comments which photos resonate and what do you think of the techniques used?

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