Nan Melville, a photographer known for her sleek, free-flowing images of prominent dancers and dance companies, died March 18 in Manhattan. She was 72 years old.
Her sister, Gill Kenyon, announced the death. The cause was not specified.
Ms. Melville’s dance photographs, which have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, as well as various dance books, span four decades. She photographed the Bolshoi Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Royal Ballet of Britain, American Ballet Theater and many other well-known troupes, capturing dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov and the star of ‘Alvin Ailey Dwana Smallwood in Gravity. – defying jumps or amid swirling suits. But she was equally at home photographing traditional Venda dancers in South Africa or experimental work in avant-garde spaces like the Kitchen in Manhattan.
Later in her career, she added videography to her skills. She even made a short documentary, “Nrityagram: For the Love of Dance” (2010), about a dance school and ensemble in India.
“Much of the dance footage, especially during the closing credits, is spellbinding,” New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote of the documentary when it aired at the Dance on Camera Festival in New York. York in 2010. “I wanted the film to be twice as long.
Ms. Melville may have been destined to become a dance photographer. His father, William Melville, was a diamond appraiser in South Africa, but took up photography and amateur filmmaking as a hobby. Her mother, Enid Hilda (Jobson) Melville, was a ballet dancer and teacher. (“I believe she was doing plies just before I was born,” Ms. Melville wrote of her mother in an autobiographical sketch on her website.)
“Since childhood,” Ms. Melville said, “pictures, the movement of light, colors, impressions – still and moving – have been most important to me.”
The interplay of movement and color in the performing arts, especially dance, appeals to her.
“Photography”, she says simply, “is drawing with light”.
Septime Webre, artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet, worked with Ms Melville when he was artistic director of American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey in the 1990s.
“Nan captured images through her heart more than through her eyes,” he said, adding that she “knew how to capture movement in a way that distilled the dancer’s intent, but, more importantly, his images were full of his love affair with dance.”
Nanette Rose Melville was born on October 7, 1949 in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. She became interested in photography as a teenager and pursued this hobby while studying theater and English at Rhodes University in Makhanda, South Africa.
“The photographs I took of the plays we performed were very well received and planted a seed of idea,” she wrote on her website. “Maybe my hobby could one day become a livelihood.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she taught high school English, drama and speech in South Africa from 1973 to 1980. Then, in 1981, she turned the hobby into a vocation: she got a job photographer for the Performing Arts Council. of the Transvaal, a regional arts organization.
After five years in this position, she made an exploratory trip to New York and eventually settled there, building a career as a freelance photographer centered on dance. She photographed major and minor performances there, but, as she noted on her website, “Nothing makes me happier than dusting off my passport.”
Assignments over the years have taken her back to South Africa as well as Asia and Europe and, on several occasions beginning in 1990, to Cuba. When she died, she was working on a documentary about dance in that country, with a focus on the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Mrs. Melville’s sister is her only immediate survivor.
An assignment for The Times in 1996 to photograph a New York appearance by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble of India led to the documentary which was one of Ms Melville’s most ambitious projects. She meets Protima Gauri Bedi, founder of the troupe and its associated school, who seeks to preserve elements of classical Indian dance.
“Protima and I became friends within hours,” Ms. Melville recalled in a 2011 interview with the weekly India Abroad. “She came up to me in my studio and said, ‘You have to come to India and see our work.'”
The resulting collaboration led to Ms. Melville’s documentary, which won awards at several film festivals. Ms. Bedi, however, never saw the finished film; she died in a mudslide in a Himalayan mountain village in 1998.
Ms. Melville later said that while working on the film, “I felt like she was watching over me.”