Natalia Roberts didn’t set out to be a dancer—or a photographer, for that matter. The 32-year-old artist, who is the newest featured guest in the Art Students League of Denver’s (ASLD) Visiting Artist of Color Residency, discovered both art forms later in life and pursued them the only way she knew how: all in.

Originally from Detroit, Roberts began dancing while attending college in St. Louis, where she was studying to become an architect. She loved movement, and started learning all she could. “I decided at one point that instead of designing with steel and concrete and bricks, I wanted to design with bodies and movement and storytelling,” she says.

At age 20, the learning curve was steep, so she packed her bags and moved to New York City and enrolled in an intensive two-year program to train. She would go on to make a living as a dancer and choreographer before an injury sidelined her for eight months.

Natalia Roberts holding a camera
Natalia Roberts. Photo courtesy of the Art Students League of Denver

During this period, rehabilitation wasn’t the only thing that filled her days. The lifelong learner—who still had visual arts experience from her days as an architecture student—was inspired to explore a new avenue for her artistic expression: photography. She shadowed an acquaintance who she had once modeled for, photographer Rachel Neville, and worked as her assistant for free while taking video and photography classes. “I started off mostly using video to support my own choreography and doing dance,” Roberts says. “And then I started using photography as a way to collaborate and explore and create art with other dancers.”

In 2019, Roberts moved to San Francisco to continue to hone her craft. When the pandemic hit and performing arts were shut down, she turned inward and funneled the experience through the lens of her camera. “I began exploring more and more deeply dance photography, self-portraiture, and also documenting what was happening in the pandemic, kind of on a societal level as well as on the personal level,” she says. “And so photography broadened out from just a way to explore and create within the world of dance to a way to document what was happening in the world.”

In May 2022, as the pandemic abated, Roberts moved to Denver with her partner, who had always wanted to live in the mountains. This past November, she joined ASLD as the second artist to participate in its Visiting Artist of Color Residency series, which invites residents of various backgrounds to make and teach art within the ASLD community.

Through summer 2023, Roberts will explore video and photography at ASLD’s studios, working toward a public art exhibition next June. She will teach two public photography courses—one for teenagers to learn basics using their smartphones and a more in-depth DSLR course for all abilities—this winter. She is also hosting informal meet-and-greets and open-studio sessions throughout, so Denverites can ask questions and observe her process.

Natalia Roberts in black and white, dancing.
Natalia Roberts. Photo by Matt Haber, courtesy of the Art Students League of Denver

As for the art? True to form, Roberts has no small goals. “I’m going to be exploring different aspects of our society and how those are kind of manifested within the person and the body,” she says. “I want to talk about some of these larger issues that we’re going through, but always bring them back to the human scale.” Specifically, she says, she’s focusing on surrealist photography techniques, such as obscuring a model’s face or photographing only body parts, like a dancer’s back or limbs, to provide commentary on social issues like climate change, racial inequity, and war. “From a deeply personal sense, it’s trying to figure out how to deal with the issues, and how we can make it manageable for ourselves,” she says. “What is it like to take in that information, try to fight for that information, or try to fight for those kinds of issues without becoming overwhelmed?”

To explore these themes, Roberts will not only curate her sets, lights, and costumes, but also the models that bring her vision to life. “I do choose people rather deliberately,” she says. As a dancer with a non-traditional background, she says she has always been most inspired by performers who may not have had a lifetime of ballet training or a perfectly pointed toe. This manifests in her work by portraying dancers of varying races, ethnicities, abilities, genders, and socioeconomic statuses.

“I always wanted to choose people who I feared wouldn’t be chosen otherwise and whose stories I thought really needed to be told,” she says. “Then I can also help them create and chart their own path. I think it’s a really powerful thing to be chosen and to be seen.”

And along the way, Roberts will continue to do what she does best: learning and exploring new themes and techniques alongside her models and students, all within a new city to call home.

“When looking for a residency, I was looking specifically at ways of connecting with the Denver art scene,” she says. “I didn’t know much about the art scene in Denver, but I saw that same kind of institution in ASLD, and I was really excited to become a part of that community.”

Registration for Roberts’ teen photography class opens December 6, and registration for her DSLR class opens February 7. Members of the public can also drop by an open studio session with Roberts to observe her process. Contact ASLD for more information.

Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.