Edgar Degas’ love for the ballet is prominently featured in his body of work and one of his most iconic works is “The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer”. This piece has been reproduced in all mediums and has served as an artistic inspiration for artists and dancers around the world.
The Kennedy Center will bring the story behind Little Dancer to life in a musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. The piece will be performed by Tony award-winning performers and a principal dancer from the NYC Ballet. Tonight the Guggenheim features a panel discussion about the musical and inspiration behind it.
Degas’ Little Dancer is one of my favorite bronzes. I simply liked the piece, and never knew its history. My initial reaction to his work was that I remember being struck by the way Degas captured the fluidity of movement. In Little Dancer however, the rawness of her facial expression juxtaposed with the strength of her carriage was always so striking.
No Pressure, No Diamonds. ~Thomas Carlyle
No Grit, No Pearl ~ Anon
I want to peel back a few layers of the Little Dancer that I found interesting. The first is not too surprising: When Degas’ originally showed the wax mold of Little Dancer in 1881 it was met with the extreme, unrelenting criticism at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition. Critics found Degas’ use of clothing and hair to adorn the sculpture cast “ugly and degenerate” ; many derided the physical features of the subject, calling her a “flower of the gutter”.
I find this critique interesting because it sits square at the center of the dichotomy of the cultural zeitgeist at the time. Degas’ chose to feature all aspects of Parisian life during the Belle Époque, including the economic underclass necessary to maintain the affluence of the wealthy elite. The Paris Opera Ballet was a mirror reflecting both of these worlds. Many dancers were plucked from underprivileged families who saw ballet as a gateway to a better life. The career track for these dancers was quite limited. They performed and frequently became mistresses to wealthy male benefactors.
Degas’ muse for Little Dancer was Marie von Goethem, a 14-year-old daughter of a deceased father and a laundress. Her mother sent her to the Paris Opera Ballet at 13 in hopes that she would find a better life and escape a life of poverty. The act of artistically revealing this very unseemly aspect of the Belle Époque in lieu of the gilded, pristine facade of the ruling class, was viewed as an anathema to critics.
Tonight’s panel discussion along with excerpts of the musical will be live streamed on the Guggenheim’s website. The museum will also host extended hours to view some of Degas’ works exhibited in the Thannhauser Gallery. I’m looking forward to learning more through this musical and discussion!