SWANS captured by the wings, blood through the satin, and colourful lives within the black and white, Colin Jones’ photographs epitomise the heart and soul (or, rather, sole) of living dancers, writes Kimberly Glassman.

Featuring never before seen photographs, curator of Backstage at the Ballet, Sian Flynn, brilliantly celebrates Jones’ work, which spans four pivotal decades in the history of British ballet.

As you walk through The North Wall Gallery, you are brought chronologically through sections of The Royal Ballet (1960s), Northern Ballet Theatre (1991), English National Ballet (1999), and geographically to the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg (1960s). Flynn brings us on a journey through time and space, familiarising us with the history of ballet and the amazing journey of Jones’ life as a ballet dancer-turned-photographer.

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We are able to recognise the mirrored bodies of Judith Maden and Elizabeth Anderton waiting around in 1961, as well as Irina Kolpakova being lifted by Vladilen Semenov in a 1961 production of The Sleeping Beauty.

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You will encounter the young Phyllis Spira having a smoke, Helen Starr in class and knitting on her break, and Jones’ first wife, Canadian dancer Lynn Seymour, rehearsing, relaxing in a pub, and about to go on stage.

Other subjects, however, have had their names lost to us over time. Their bodies recount the stories of so many dancers like them, many of which we only know through their characters.

I am struck by the photo of the unknown dancer with weights on her legs, the dancer squatting, and the nameless Swans flying in and out of various shots.

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They stand in for the dancers of yesterday and tomorrow.

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There is a remarkable continuity in Jones’s work that gives him a unique, recognisable identity despite the fact that his images span decades and vary in purpose.

There are photographs of his commissions, for instance, of English National Ballet dancers in Swan Lake while on tour in Hong Kong and Australia for The Sunday Times in 1999.

Others, however, were deeply personal and taken without permission. Following his intuition, he took images when he saw something that particularly got his attention.

There are a few rare occasions when the dancers, by chance, stared right into the camera, through him, and, inadvertently, at us.

As you walk through the gallery you cannot help but feel a sense of movement in the stillness of the photos.

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As you near the end of your extraordinary journey backstage at the ballet, you will encounter two objects: Jones’ ballet shoes and his first camera.

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The bar has already been set high for the programme, which runs up to Easter. Last week featured trumpeter Steve Waterman, a musician who is massively influential behind the scenes in many areas of music and even has a signature Waterman trumpet named after him.

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They represent, in a snapshot, the inspirational melding of worlds. Jones brings together his experience as dancer and talent as photographer to reveal the unseen and introduce us to a magical world hidden from view, and yet always there.

Adorned with photographs and objects, the white walls of The North Wall have been transformed into a lightbox showcasing the inner workings of the lives of dancers backstage – and we are all invited!

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  • Backstage at the Ballet - pictures by Colin Jones - is at the North Wall, South Parade, Oxford now until March 7.
  • The exhibition’s photographs are courtesy of Colin Jones and TopFoto.
  • The exhibition and The North Wall are sponsored by St Edward’s School.