Ballerina Léna Alvino, seen through the window, dances in her bedroom. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
Ballerina Léna Alvino, seen through the window, dances in her bedroom. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

Capturing local dancers in their unnatural habitats

“Dance like nobody’s watching.” Immortalized in song, the popular metaphor has become a way of life for professional dancers since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and their audiences disappeared.

Kyle Adler, a Bay Area photographer specializing in travel and the arts, thought about all those dancers languishing in quarantine. Or were they? Adler put out a call to find out.

The result is his latest photography project, featuring dancers in quarantine. Some 40 local dancers are in his portfolio, representing the diverse ethnicities and dance styles of the Bay Area. The project, named for the song, aims to raise funds for Bay Area residents most impacted by Covid-19.

And how did he do it while respecting the imperative of social distancing? With a long lens, of course. Adler either photographed the dancers through their windows, or met them at an outdoor space.

Hip-hop dancer Rebecca Fazio has been sheltering in a van in front of her childhood home in San Francisco. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
Hip-hop dancer Rebecca Fazio has been sheltering in a van in front of her childhood home in San Francisco. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

“My one rule was that the photos had to portray the dancers within the confines of their quarantine. No sets, no assistant, all available light. But I loved the rawness and seeing the places where they live. And some of them wear masks.”

Adler, who has lost most of his business income as a result of the economic slowdown, is donating both his skills and sales of the prints, and will channel any financial donations to local nonprofits.

“It’s a labor of love for me,” said the 57-year-old San Carlos resident.

A key goal of “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” is to help the dancers, who not only are unable to perform in theaters but also have lost their usual practice spaces and contact with their dance communities. Some are confined to small living spaces, while others, unable to pay rent, have moved in with family. These conditions affect their ability to maintain their artistic instrument — i.e., their bodies.

Ballerina Izabella Duran-Soriano, wearing a mask, practices outside at her father’s Silicon Valley workplace. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
Ballerina Izabella Duran-Soriano, wearing a mask, practices outside at her father’s Silicon Valley workplace. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

“Dancers are elite athletes. They have to have workouts daily; their career depends on it,” Adler said.

And that is just the physical toll of isolation. The challenges of creating dance art in isolation are many: the loss of synchronization, and the absence of touch and emotional connection.

“One of the reasons I started this project was to give them an outlet to break the monotony, an opportunity for performative and artistic expression,” he said. “I hoped to give voice to their creativity.”

For Jo Kreiter, whose groundbreaking aerial choreography seeks to raise awareness of prison justice issues, the pandemic forced a postponement of the upcoming premiere of “Meet Us Quickly with Your Mercy, a work exploring how the voices of Blacks, Jews and other people of color can call together for prison reform and racial justice. An outdoor shoot with Adler allowed her to improvise dance moves on the structures of a road overpass in her San Francisco neighborhood.

Choreographer Jo Kreiter improvises on a pedestrian bridge. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
Choreographer Jo Kreiter improvises on a pedestrian bridge. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

Sisters Alyssa and Olivia Mitchel have danced all their lives, leading to a professional dance career for Alyssa, 27, and performance experiences for Stanford University student Olivia, 22. Adler had previously photographed Alyssa through her work at ODC Dance Commons, in San Francisco, and he reached out to her for the project. The sisters improvised in the garden of their childhood home, in Cole Valley, where Olivia returned to live when Stanford pivoted to remote learning. “Taking dance classes online is super hard,” Alyssa said. “I’ve resorted to running and cross-training to stay in shape.”

Another Jewish dancer, Yuliya Eydelnant, from Ukraine, was exposed in utero and as a child to the radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion. Being immunocompromised, she has to avoid exposure to disease. An actress and singer who performs several styles of movement including flamenco and belly dance, she danced briefly for Adler on a lawn outside her apartment complex.

Sheltering as a performing artist “has been one of the most difficult experiences I’ve been through,” she said. “So doing socially distanced collaborations such as this photo shoot was a great lift to my spirits, as I was able to emote and create outside in a space [where] I feel free and not suffocated by the pandemic or the fires.”

Sisters Alyssa and Olivia Mitchel work out in the garden of their parents’ Cole Valley home. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
Sisters Alyssa and Olivia Mitchel work out in the garden of their parents’ Cole Valley home. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

While several of the dancers are from Jewish backgrounds, like Adler, he sought to be inclusive of all backgrounds, genders and dance styles for this project.

“I believe that Judaism provided me with a powerful cultural background, always informing what I’m doing as a photographer,” he reflected. “My mantra is ‘Photos to change lives.’”

Born and raised in Boston, Adler was making pictures long before he became a professional. His parents were academics who brought him to the U.K. for their sabbatical year when he was a year old. In the 1970s there were more family trips to India, China and Europe. Traveling to new countries became “a part of my blood,” he said, and he always carried a camera, even as a child.

His first career as an executive in the tech industry brought him to the Bay Area. A few years ago, he decided to follow his passion and build a new career as a professional photographer. His work has been published in National Geographic, the Atlantic, CNN, the Telegraph, Pointe magazine and elsewhere.

San Franciscan Dwayne Worthington works on contemporary dances while sheltering at the SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)
San Franciscan Dwayne Worthington works on contemporary dances at the SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts. (Photo/Kyle Adler Photography)

One of his income sources is leading tours focused on travel photography. “I’m passionate about helping fellow travelers improve their photography while learning to explore our world with greater cultural awareness and advocacy,” he said. Among other awards, he was a 2016 runner-up in the wildlife and nature category for Travel Photographer of the Year — an industry distinction.

With travel options sidelined during the pandemic, Adler switched his focus in the spring to the multicultural world of dancers in the Bay Area, which he describes as “a microcosm of the entire world.”

“My drive is always not just to create beautiful images, but to repair the world. The more light we can shed on issues, the more chance there is of changing conditions to alleviate suffering,” he said.

To see more of Adler’s photography, go to kyleadlerphotography.com.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.