You can thank Kanye West, in part, for inspiring New York City Ballet corps member Devin Alberda to pursue his budding passion for photography beyond Facebook profile pics. It was during the Yeezus Tour that West, whom Alberda calls “a real role model of mine," gave a sermon about believing in your vision. “That's when I decided maybe I could do more than I thought with the photos," says Alberda.
Not long after, a photography editor at The New York Times, who had discovered Alberda's impressive Instagram feed, approached him to publish a spread of photos in the paper—a major vote of confidence for the mostly self-taught shutterbug. “It's been really cool to have people believe in the work I do," he says.
Alberda, 29, calls photography a form of “identity expression," a way to engage thoughtfully with the intense, insular and high-pressure world of an elite ballet company. His spread in the Times depicted the focused and playful backstage life of his fellow company members, capturing the quiet moments, secret smiles and personal preparations. But first and foremost, Alberda is a dancer, part of the NYCB family.
He almost wasn't. After growing up in Ohio and training at the School of Cleveland Ballet, Alberda was accepted to The Juilliard School, where he planned to study a variety of dance styles. But the summer before classes began, he was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer program. He was then invited to stay for the year, which turned into an apprenticeship with the company and a corps position in 2006.
Since then, he has had the opportunity to taste from the broad spectrum of NYCB's repertoire. Prized experiences include George Balanchine's avant-garde Episodes, Wayne McGregor's quick and spiky Outlier and Justin Peck's In Creases.
Alberda has also dabbled in choreography, recently creating a solo called Individuate, inspired by, among other things, the dark sci-fi film Ex Machina. “I've always been interested in how technology might lead us to a different stage of humanity," he says.
That kind of existential questioning and the thrill of poking around in shadowy places informs Alberda's recent photography, which is mostly black-and-white, like an X-ray. “I'm a documentary photographer," he says. “I try to find beautiful images as they happen."
Others beyond the ballet world are taking note: The publicist of Hollywood producer Scott Rudin requested Alberda's photographic services at rehearsals of his upcoming Broadway musical Shuffle Along, which Alberda has found fun and fulfilling.
Despite such opportunities to flex another creative muscle, in some ways it seems photography is a placeholder for the autonomy and exploration Alberda craves as a dancer. “I'd like to find myself dancing roles where I can express myself more readily," he says. “There's something that changes when you get to make decisions as a soloist. I'd like to be given more of those opportunities."
Music inspiration: Alberda loves hip hop. “I'm obsessed with Future this year," he says. “He's kind of a beast."
Photo tools: His Instagram photos are shot on an iPhone 5 or 6, but he recently got a new camera—a Leica MP. “I'm really excited about it," he says.
Favorite author: Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney. “He imagines a world that is a little freer of the constraints of identity politics."
Visit a New York City Ballet rehearsal on any given day and you may find an unlikely guest named Theo, a 3-year-old Shiba Inu with wolf-like eyes and a teddy bear coat who has become something of an NYCB mascot. He tends to sit patiently off to the side, lost in his own thoughts, while his owner, the captivating 24-year-old soloist Taylor Stanley, concentrates in the center of the studio, displaying his usual discipline and quiet focus.
“I bring him everywhere I go," says Stanley. And like his canine companion, Stanley is a popular presence. “He brings a ray of sunshine into our workspace," says fellow soloist Erica Pereira. “He's a very good person on the inside and people feed off of good energy." But that cool demeanor belies a high-voltage internal spark. “When he dances he eats up the stage," says principal Robert Fairchild. Indeed it's Stanley's unique ability to combine power and passion with ease and humility that has made him a magnetic presence onstage and one of the company's breakout talents.
Sharing a moment of camaraderie in Justin Peck's "Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.