How a Snapshot from 1987 Became a Book Cover in 2020

In 1987, choreographer Margo Sappington came to Houston to set her dance “Rodin, mis en vie” on the world-famous Houston Ballet at the invitation of Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. Not knowing who she was, but attracted by her energy and persona, I introduced myself.

After finding out what she did and why she was in Houston, I asked if I could come to the studio and photograph the rehearsals as she taught them the ballet’s dances. I thought it would be for a couple of days, but I ended up working on the project for about six weeks. The project was engrossing, especially as I knew (and except for what I learned during this period) next to nothing about ballet or theater.

I am sure there were a lot of internal political lines I was crossing. I pretty much just ignored them unless someone very explicitly said ‘Don’t do that again!” Margo gave me strict instructions to keep quiet and to stay out of everyone’s way. I knew Ben Stevenson by reputation, and I knew who Li Cunxin and Janie Parker were, they were famous. Along with Margo, those three are certifiable geniuses.

It was a fun time.

One day, deep into the physically demanding rehearsals, as Margo was showing another dancer a step and a move, I noticed Li leaning up against Principal Dancer, Australian Mary McKendry, and the tender way she held him, so I quickly shot a single frame. I got the impression that no one yet knew they were a couple, or if they did, it was kept very private.

After the Production opened, as thank-you gifts for letting me into their elite world, I made prints and gave them to the company’s members.

Over the next few years, I had a couple of more opportunities to photograph the Houston Ballet for other projects. Since they already had a couple of other outstanding photographers working for them, guys I was friendly with, I never pursued the Houston Ballet as a client and treated the project as just another in a series of great one-off learning experiences my career as a photographer has been filled with.

Cut to May 2020 when I get a phone call from Brisbane Australia. It’s Li Cunxin calling me! Wow!

We talked for a bit and caught up. Li tells me how much he and Mary have cherished that photograph over the years. Now Mary has written a memoir, and the publisher would like to use my photo as the cover. Now I’m not just awestruck but honored and thrilled.

The only problem: after three days of searching I couldn’t find the negative. So we discussed how best to scan the print that they have. I negotiate a usage fee with the publishers, and “Mary’s Last Dance: The Untold Story of The Wife of Mao’s Last Dancer” will be published in September, 2020 by Penguin Australia.

About the author: Ellis Vener is an Atlanta-based commercial photographer providing corporate, industrial, editorial and advertising photography. He’s also a contributing editor for Popular Photography, and has contributed to Digital Photo Pro, View Camera, Camera Arts and Imaging Resource, among others. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram.