Ever since I first began writing dance reviews and article, the name credited to some of the most beautiful dance photos continues to be Cheryl Mann. Recently she shared with me a master class video that she made for 92Y titled Focused on Dance: Master Class Conversation with Photographer Cheryl Mann. 92Y stands for the New York-based 92nd Street Y, the Young Men and Young Women Hebrew Association Founded 145 years ago to serve the Jewish people. The 92Y is a nonprofit organization whose mission throughout its long history has been to serve its communities and the larger world. It brings people together by offering groundbreaking programs in the arts, literature, culture, education, as well as health and fitness. As a young man living and working in New York City, I attended dance concerts at the 92nd Street Y.
Dance: Master Class Conversation with Photographer Cheryl Mann is not only informative, but it acts as an inspiration for anyone who has the opportunity to watch, listen and learn. The video left my partner and I speechless and in awe of such a talented and generous person/artist who embodies the definition of humility. After regaining my composure, I immediately emailed Mann to find out if she would allow us to share her history, talents, and insight with LADC’s readers.
Before Mann was a dance photographer, she was among the incredibly talented list of dancers working with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), joining the company in 1997 and performing with them for almost 11 years. She performed in works by such choreographers as Ohad Naharin, Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato, Lou Conte, Jim Vincent, Lucas Crandall, Marguerite Donlon, William Forsythe, Toru Shimazaki, Susan Marshall, Twyla Tharp, Margo Sappington, Danny Ezralow, David Parsons, Kevin O’Day, and Harrison McEldowney.
“HSDC was a touring company when I danced there.” Mann said. “We were the ambassadors of dance for Chicago touring all over the world most of the year.” Many who witnessed Mann’s performances have called her phenomenal, brilliant, and exciting to watch.
In this video Mann speaks lovingly and highly of her Mother. “I was conceived in Vietnam and was born the year she came to the States.” Mann said. “My parents met during the Vietnam War.” Mann’s Father was in the Army and became a citizen of Vietnam to marry Mann’s Mom. Her father sent his family to Knoxville, TN to be with his Father in 1972, but died a heart attack a day before his 28th birthday leaving his wife with 2 kids to raise on her own in a new country. Mann has an older brother named David who was born in Saigon.
Mann began studying dance at the age of six and as a teen performed at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I asked about her dance training both before and during her tenure with HSDC. “I studied at The School of Performing Arts under the late Patti Watson Walsh, Ari Bloustein & (still alive and well) Ellie Potts-Barrett.” She said.
At some point during their career every professional dancer faces the dreaded question, “When should I stop performing?”. If their choice is to do so, the very next question is “What do I do next?”. For some the decision is to transition into the role of teacher or rehearsal director for the company that they were performing with, or some go on to become world famous choreographers who form their own dance companies. The remainder are left with seeking out a new and different career. I have known a few dancers who went back to school and became lawyers, filmmakers, and yes, writers.
Because Mann had always had a passion for photography and it became clear that she had an incredible eye for catching the right moments during a dance, the transition into dance photography appeared to be a logical one. She began taking photos of HSDC and in in 2001 the Director at the time Jim Vincent, created a performance called Inside/Out where the dancers did everything to produce the show. Some choreographed, others produced the show, but Mann decided to have an exhibit of her photography in the theater lobby. It proved to be an event that helped her realize that she could possibly make a living as a dance photographer.
I ask Mann when she first acquired her first professional camera. “I bought my first professional camera in 1999.” She said. “There was a camera store called Helix Film & Camera that was across the street from the studio. The manager there named Martin Cheung promised to teach me to use the camera if I bought it…so I did! I bought a Canon Rebel. It was a light SLR and I took it everywhere.”
Because dance is a performing art and dancers are generally constantly on the move during a dance, capturing the right moment of a dance movement or group phrase is difficult. Over the years, Mann has proven that she has an exceptional eye for capturing that elusive instant. Her photographs are not only clear, but one sees and feels the motion. The dancers in her photographs never appear stagnant or posed.
While living in Chicago, Mann began taking photos of the Joffrey Ballet and quickly became their most desired photographer. When she moved to Los Angeles, the challenge was to find work in a city where, as she put it, “everyone has a camera”.
“Fortunately for me, the dance world is small! I knew Danielle (Agami, Artistic Director of Ate9) from working with her setting some of Ohad Naharin works a few years prior to moving our family to LA.” Mann explained. “I knew dancers who were dancing in companies here that would let their Directors know. I also had a friend who was choreographing for Melissa Barak, so he let her know about me as well! His name is Nicolas Blanc, Ballet Master for The Joffrey Ballet.”
When one of the promotional representatives at The Music Center contacted LA Dance Chronicle and asked if we could recommend a dance photographer, the first name that came to mind was Cheryl Mann. “You recommended me to the Music Center as well to shoot The Royal Ballet after all!” She said. “The rest is word of mouth by people I have worked with. I rely heavily on that kind of referral because it is built on trust.”
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, LADC launched the series Stories From the Inside authored by dance professionals from around the country. Mann graciously agreed to contribute to the series and wrote Stuck inside with your 2 favorite muses? Featuring photos that she staged with her two children to represent different decades through time. It was part of her home schooling for them, and it was fun. When my partner, Martin, saw the photos that Mann took of her children, he said “Every kid deserves a Mom like Cheryl!” I asked her if her mother had a relationship with her two children.
“My Mother is ever present in my kids’ lives. She is always sending me ideas and advice regarding them. To my kids she is their Amaa.” She answered. “My niece named my parents as the first born grandchild! She named her Amaa & my Dad, Audaz. Not sure why, but it stuck!”
I asked Mann if she had any favorite or humorous stories to share about her time as a dance photographer. This was her response.
“I got to shoot Ann Reinking who I ADORE. I have always been such a fan of her work in any show or film that she was in. I got to relive a moment back in the day when I was auditioning for FOSSE. I would have given my left foot (which is my better one) to dance in that musical. I finally did it. I took voice lessons and felt confident. Gave my sheet music to the pianist and I was READY. For reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, I felt like I was in deep water. Struggling to get enough air to hold the notes. Ann stepped in to help me & would sing in the moments where I was gasping for air, hands on knees, keeled over! She would sing, I would “sing”, she would sing, and so on. She was so sweet to me afterwards saying: “Cheryl you have such a beautiful voice in there…you just need to practice!” About an hour later, walking around NYC, it finally hit me. The pianist was playing the music as a ballad when I had been practicing as an upbeat. I didn’t know that that could be a possibility, and I didn’t know that I could stop and ask the pianist to plat it faster. Felt good to laugh about it years later!
Mann was fortunate to have a second talent that she excels at when making that emotionally difficult choice of transiting from a performing dancer into a new career. She is also one of the most humble and generous people I have had the great opportunity to work with. I, therefore, wanted to know if she had any advice for dancers who might be facing such an important decision.
“I suggest paying attention to things that you enjoy doing other than dancing WHILE you are still dancing.” She said. “We all have so many passions inside that go unnoticed. Keep your heart open and notice the things that you do in life that bring you joy…then go pursue those things further. You never know what you may learn about yourself.”
I hope that readers will take the time to watch Dance: Master Class Conversation with Photographer Cheryl Mann. You will not be disappointed. To view the video, click HERE.
To visit Cheryl Mann Productions, click HERE.
Featured image: Joe Chaplin – Photo by Cheryl Mann