Dancers, with their ethereal beauty and subtle grace, have always been a source of fascination for Joanne Savio, from her youth to her adult life.

“I have always been clumsy as a child and remain so as an adult. To witness through my camera, these beautiful and graceful beings has always been magic to me. When I am shooting dancers, part of me fantasises [that] I am dancing,” she said.

Now people can share Savio’s captivating attempts to reveal hidden depths in the world of dance. The internationally-renowned photographer — whose celebrity subjects include Tennessee Williams, Trisha Brown, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Steinem, Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones and Al Gore — has carefully curated a selection of images on show at Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 at New York University Abu Dhabi’s The Project Space on Saadiyat island.

Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Courtesy: Joanne Savio

“All of my work in the retrospective was shot on film. It was like an archaeological dig, going through my negatives and then having the images scanned. I spent much of my time last summer in our basement in upstate New York, going through negatives,” Savio explained.

She added: “My photography work is a record of my life. So many memories... Many of my subjects are no longer with us, and it was difficult to choose. It’s only a small representation of the photographs I have shot. It was a torturous process, to eliminate work.”

Along with her photography career, Joanne is also a professor — she has more than 20 years teaching experience between New York University, New York and its Abu Dhabi campus: “My Emirati students have taught me so much about the culture here, and I was honoured to be invited into an Emirati home for dinner, and even a wedding! […] being part of a community, from so many different countries, different faiths, the environment on campus gives me hope for the future.”

Pina Bausch, archival digital print from film negative. Photograph for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival, 1994.  Courtesy: Joanne Savio

Savio added: “We must learn to talk to people that are different from us, that is where the secret of peace may hide. I am constantly looking for ways to nurture more friendships with the Emirati community, that goal remains.”

Savio revealed that living in the UAE offered her an opportunity she had been looking forward to for years — to visit her mother’s birthplace in Lebanon as well as explore the Middle East.

“I have found shooting in Jordan, Palestine, Oman, the UAE, Lebanon, all very different. The responsibility of the photographer is to do research, use intuition and bring our personal integrity to any region we are in,” she said.

Elizabeth Streb, archival digital print from film negative. Dance Ink Photographs, 1997.  Courtesy: Joanne Savio

Savio further explained: “Also, I spend a lot of time walking the streets of a new location to get a sense of where I am. How does it feel? How do people react to me? Even as you travel around the states things can change, it is not the same anywhere. Assume nothing. I also look to the community I want to photograph and ask them directly.”

Some words of advice for photography enthusiasts: “I encourage all of us to remain students throughout our lives, think about the images we put out into the world and what relevance they have. I think it is important to know some of the history of photography to see where this art form started, to continue to develop our craft and to look at other people’s work. We can learn so much from looking at photographers that work in essay form, single images, new forms and ways different from our own that we may never have considered.”

To Savio, a ‘perfect’ photograph is one that: “evoke[s] questions in the viewer, make us wonder what happened before and after the image was taken. In a “perfect” world a strong photograph can attempt to tell a single frame story. I want to create images that interest people so they pause, at least for a moment, and think about what they see.”

Savio indicated that she sought inspiration from a source that is both likely and unlikely — the human face.

“I have always stared and always will. As a child, I was disciplined repeatedly for staring. It was almost as though I could not help myself. The human face intrigues me… I love studying the face and the gestures of the body, how we move, where we gaze, how the fact that we have experienced a rich life is often shown on our face. The face holds evidence that we have lived. The faces in this region offer their own gift, holding their own diverse stories, and secrets,” she said.

She is also generous with her talent, using it to draw stunning portraits of well-known personalities and artists to ordinary people.

“My camera lens has been fortunate to gaze upon people from all walks of life. Everyone has a story. Every person I pass on the street holds stories inside them. I have learned so much from my subjects,” she said, adding: “I research, if possible, who I will be shooting to be able to make them realise I have an interest in who they are, not just what they do. I am extremely grateful for being able to do the work I do. It is a blessing.”

However, it could also be a curse — especifically when it means being asked to choose which images are her favourite, out of the thousands, or more, that she has taken in the past decades.

“That is a difficult question, almost like choosing which of your children is your favourite,” she said laughingly.

Savio noted though: “If I had to choose it would be images of my husband of 45 years, and our daughter, Jasmine. I have photographed them both throughout our lives together.”

She also indicated her fondness for a photograph she had taken of Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg, whose critically-acclaimed partnership was instrumental in the development of Postmodern dance.

“You can feel the love and trust in that friendship and to have those two iconic artists in my studio was a real gift. I will never forget it. We connected as people and they stayed for hours after the session, we laughed and shared stories of our lives. It was like being in a dream,” she said wistfully.

While Grace is an exhibition dedicated to movement and light, Savio’s future projects touch on darker subjects.

“I have a few things in mind, one is starting to use single images and combining them with sound, as installations pieces. I am working on a sound/image piece about a man who took his own life at Abu Ghraib, and another sound/composition contrasting the sound of nature with graffiti in Georgia,” she said.

Nevertheless, Savio stated that she would return to her original passion: portrait photography.

“I’ll continue to do portraits the rest of my life, and I have a few ideas about the next portrait series. Photography has always given me an opportunity to try and understand things about people and the world around me that I find confusing,” Savio said.

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 will run until February 25 at The Project Space, New York University Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat island.