Frederika Davis



March 7, 2024
Ballet dancers on a stage
THM/636/1/116 Royal Ballet – Swan Lake

The Theatre and Performance Archive holds a large number of photographic collections, containing thousands of prints and negatives. But in more recent years, as technology has moved on, we are acquiring more ‘born digital’ collections, meaning that the native format is digital – rather than an analogue source that has been digitised.

Born digital collections have many implications, both good and … unknown!

Still in relative infancy in photographic terms, digital photography creates less pressures on physical space and housing, which with ever tightening constraints on museum stores and finances is a huge plus. On the other side hard drives can become corrupted, disks damaged and servers crash, and software and hardware can become obsolete or incompatible with other systems … it is, to say the least, worrisome.

Whatever the challenges for the archivist, the rise of the DSLR has made photography truly instant. There is no processing while hoping that one spectacular moment was captured; now the images can be edited and sent to press or published on a website in moments. Of course, it also means that we are likely to take 100s if not 1000s of images – we are limited only by the size of our memory cards and the charge on our batteries.

Two women looking at the camera, one has grey hair
Frederika Davis (right)

Which brings me to a born digital collection of dance photographs, the Frederika Davis Photographic Archive THM/636, shot mostly during photo calls predominantly in London. Of these, 9009 are born digital, and the other 195 were chosen to be digitised by the photographer as a representation of her earlier work.

Frederika Davis, or Fred to almost everyone who knew her, was born in May 1923 and became known as a dance photographer in the 1960s. Her photographs of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev taken in rehearsal in 1963 are some of her best-known images. 

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Two dancers resting during a rehearsal
THM/636/3/2 Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in rehearsal

After many years photographing the leading names of the Royal Ballet and too many other companies to name, Fred decided to retire in the late 1970s. That might have been an end to her photographic story, but in July 2007, at the age of 84 and armed with a Nikon D40, Fred made her photo call comeback with the Bolshoi’s Le Corsaire.

Dancers with arms outstretched
THM/636/1/1 Bolshoi Sessions – Le Corsaire

By October of 2007 She had moved on to a Canon EOS 30D.

A regal-looking dancer leaping high into the air
THM/636/1/7 Royal Ballet – La Bayedere
A dancer dressed in a squirrel costume jumping gracefully
THM/636/1/11 Royal Ballet – Beatrix Potter

Upgrading to a Canon EOS 50D.

A woman dancing in a flamboyant red dress
THM/636/1/76 Sadler’s Wells – Havana Rakatan

Frederika Davis attended her last photocall, at the age of 91, for the Royal Ballet’s Manon in 2014. She passed away peacefully on 22 August 2019. Between 2007 and 2014, Fred photographed over 200 performances and took over 9000 images, which she bequeathed to the V&A. You can find details of the Frederika Davis Photographic Archive on our website.

Ballet dancers in historical costume
THM/636/1/208 Royal Ballet – Manon

Capturing dance through photography offers a complex set of challenges. Sometimes the photographer has to prioritise the dynamic over focus, or movement over sharpness. When we look at Fred’s images, we see movement, stillness, passion, control, drama, strength and grace – we see the set and costumes as well as the dancers.

Contemporary dancers in a spectacular pose
THM/636/1/141 Royal Ballet – Triple Bill
An elegant couple dressed in black dancing
THM/636/1/102 Alvin Ailey – Anointed
A dancer holding a fan wearing a red dress
THM/636/1/53 Peacock Theatre – Havana Rakatan

Fred had a wonderful ability to capture a split-second of the magic of the performance.

9 comments so far, view or add yours

Comments

I have been very fortunate to have seen these productions live. Fred’s images really capture the essence of the performance. I must look for more if her work next time I visit. Lovely memories on a Monday. Thank you.

What amazing images from a photographer I am not familiar with. I will certainly keep a look out for more of her work. Thanks for lifting my Monday.

I was lucky enough to grow up with Fred, her daughter Sasha (in the photograph with her) and I met at Madame Vacani’s when we were three years old. Fred was an astonishing person and enormously talented in everything she touched. Not only a photographer but a jazz pianist and a dancer herself (studying Spanish dancing earlier in her life). She was a skilled tailoress, and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society as a specialist on African violets. Her curiosity and zest for life never left her. I am privileged to have known her so well and so closely. Sasha and I are still good friends.

She was my Mum!! As many of you know. !!! What more can I say except on her behalf and mine. Thank you for Remembering 🌹

I’ve known Sasha for a long time and considered her a very close friend. I love these pictures and Sasha did tell me how talented her mom was. What a wonderful tribute to her art !

I had the great pleasure of finally meeting the lovely Sasha in North London with my Father David Akenhead the son of Angela Akenhead my Granny and life long friend of Fred’s. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Sasha’s mother just before she passed away and have lovely memories as I walked up her stairs in her home some of her work was hanging there framed. We all had a lovely day that day and I still remain good friends with Sasha to this day. Sadly Fred passed away and I was at her funeral just to learn so much more about her and her colourful life! Thank you Frederica for blessing us and leaving behind your talent and life long work never will be forgotten xxx

What spectacular photographs which really lift the spirits. They very essence of dance so skilfully captured. Thanks to the V & A for posting these.

What wonderful photographs and Fred sounds like she was a lovely person. I will definitely try to see more of her work.

I see friends and family on this blog. How lovely to remember some of the special times we shared. Gail points out some of them. My Mum and Margot Fonteyn were totally in sync about catching beauty of line and body. But showing the humanity also. I do remember how she adored Nureyev. Many many wonderful experiences. Oh and she stayed up all night after photo calls!!!! 🌹

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