Backstage at the Ballet: Photographs by Colin Jones from the 1960s and 1990s

A dancer from English National Ballet, 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Ballet dancer-turned-photographer Colin Jones has been taking photographs for more than six decades and is one of Britain's most significant post-war photojournalists. His ballet photography reveals the emotional intensity and beauty of ballet as well as the physical exertion and discipline of a dancer's life.

Drawn from the archive of TopFoto and Colin Jones's own collection, you can see some of his images in a new exhibition at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford from 11 February – many of which have never been on public display before.

Taken while Jones was a dancer then photographer in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, the prints include Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev whom he danced alongside, as well as Ninette de Valois, Kenneth MacMillan, Lynn Seymour and Tamara Rojo.

After a working-class childhood in London's East End, Colin Jones had the opportunity to train as a dancer in the early 1950s. He auditioned for The Royal Ballet School, joined its touring company and in 1958, while running an errand for Margot Fonteyn, bought his first camera. Jones went on to be mentored by the renowned Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, who also taught him how to print his images. By 1962 Colin Jones was a photographer for The Observer.

Jones's images from the period show his fellow dancers in class and at rehearsal, often unaware that they are being photographed. These intimate, behind-the-scenes images show them warming up, stretching, learning new choreography, resting and even knitting. Aftershow party images taken on stage at the Royal Opera House include the big names in British ballet such as the President of The Royal Ballet, Princess Margaret, clearly enjoying the company of dancers.

During the early 1960s, Jones also captured images of the Kirov Ballet Company, at the time of Soviet-born Rudolf Nureyev's defection to the West; he went on to photograph the sensational Nureyev at work with his dance partner, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Jones became friends with Nureyev, recalling his charismatic presence – "when he was on stage, you couldn't take your eyes off him".

In the 1990s and now an established photojournalist, Jones photographed the Northern Theatre Ballet Company (now Northern Ballet) during classes; he also went on tour in Hong Kong and Australia with English National Ballet for a Sunday Times commission.

Throughout his career, Jones has used a hand-held Leica or Nikon F with 35mm lens and minimal equipment; the techniques he developed in the 1960s were the same he used when taking his 1990s ballet images more than 30 years later.

Backstage at the Ballet runs at Oxford’s North Wall from 11 February – 7 March 2020 and admission is free.

Margot Fonteyn rehearsing Beauty and the Beast, early 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Margot Fonteyn rehearsing Beauty and the Beast, early 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev at a class before performing Swan Lake at the Nervi Festival in Italy, 1962. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev at a class before performing Swan Lake at the Nervi Festival in Italy, 1962. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Rudolf Nureyev rehearsing his new ballet Tancredi at The Opera House in Vienna, 1966. Copyright Colin Jones /Topfoto.co.uk

Rudolf Nureyev rehearsing his new ballet Tancredi at The Opera House in Vienna, 1966. Copyright Colin Jones /Topfoto.co.uk

A dancer with weights on her knees, stretching at class, 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

A dancer with weights on her knees, stretching at class, 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Ballet dancers passing the time at a rehearsal during one of The Royal Ballet’s many regional tours of the UK, early 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Ballet dancers passing the time at a rehearsal during one of The Royal Ballet’s many regional tours of the UK, early 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Princess Margaret (centre) at a party on stage at the Royal Opera House, with ballerinas Georgina Parkinson (facing camera) and Antoinette Sibley (back to camera), 1960s Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Princess Margaret (centre) at a party on stage at the Royal Opera House, with ballerinas Georgina Parkinson (facing camera) and Antoinette Sibley (back to camera), 1960s Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Tamara Rojo in Hong Kong with English National Ballet Tour 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Tamara Rojo in Hong Kong with English National Ballet Tour 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Helen Starr in a mixed class on stage in Newcastle, Royal Ballet Touring Company, 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Helen Starr in a mixed class on stage in Newcastle, Royal Ballet Touring Company, 1960s. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

English National Ballet dancers on tour to Hong Kong and Australia, 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

English National Ballet dancers on tour to Hong Kong and Australia, 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Colin Jones Self Portrait, 1958. Taken in costume in the dressing room of the Empire Theatre, Sydney on The Royal Ballet tour of Australia and New Zealand. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Colin Jones Self Portrait, 1958. Taken in costume in the dressing room of the Empire Theatre, Sydney on The Royal Ballet tour of Australia and New Zealand. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Feet belonging to a dancer from English National Ballet, 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk

Feet belonging to a dancer from English National Ballet, 1999. Copyright Colin Jones / Topfoto.co.uk