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Degas and His Dancers

A major exhibition and a new ballet bring the renowned artist's obsession with dance center stage

The sketches Degas made in his studio and backstage at the Opéra were only the starting point for an artist who loved to experiment and rarely considered anything finished. He would make repeated tracings from his drawings as a way of correcting them, recalled Vollard. “He would usually make the corrections by beginning the new figure outside of the original outlines, the drawing growing larger and larger until a nude no bigger than a hand became life-size—only to be abandoned in the end.” The single figures in his sketches would show up in his paintings as part of a group, only to reappear in other scenes in other paintings.

When a friend taught him how to make a monotype print by drawing on an inked plate that was then run through a press, Degas at once did something unexpected. After making one print, he quickly made a second, faded impression from the leftover ink on the plate, then worked with pastels and gouache over this ghostly image. The result was an instant success—a collector bought the work, The Ballet Master, on the advice of Mary Cassatt.

More important, this technique gave Degas a new way to depict the artificial light of the stage. The soft colors of his pastels took on a striking luminosity when laid over the harsher black-and-white contrasts of the underlying ink. Degas showed at least five of these images in 1877 at the third Impressionist exhibition in Paris—a show that, art historian Charles Stuckey points out, included “the daring series of smoke-filled views inside the Gare St. Lazare by Monet and the large, sun-speckled group portrait at the Moulin de la Galette by Renoir.”

During the last 20 years of his career, Degas worked in a large fifth-floor studio in lower Montmartre above his living quarters and a private museum for his own art collection. Paul Valéry sometimes visited him there: “He would take me into a long attic room,” Valéry wrote, “with a wide bay window (not very clean) where light and dust mingled gaily. The room was pell-mell—with a basin, a dull zinc bathtub, stale bathrobes, a dancer modeled in wax with a real gauze tutu in a glass case, and easels loaded with charcoal sketches.” Valéry and other visitors also noticed stacks of paintings turned against the walls, a piano, double basses, violins and a scattering of ballet shoes and dusty tutus. Prince Eugen of Sweden, who visited in 1896, “wondered how Degas could find any specific color in the jumble of crumbling pastels.”

The wax model of a dancer in a tutu standing in a glass case was undoubtedly Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. When it was first shown, at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the work was adorned with a real costume and hair. Two-thirds life-size, it was too real for many viewers, who found her “repulsive,” a “flower of the gutter.” But in her pose Degas had caught the essence of classical ballet, beautifully illustrating an 1875 technique manual’s admonition that a ballerina’s “shoulders must be held low and the head lifted. . . . ” Degas never exhibited the Little Dancer again, keeping it in his studio among the many other wax models that he used for making new drawings. The sculpture was cast in bronze (some 28 are now known to exist) only after his death in 1917, at age 83.

The girl who posed for Degas’s Little Dancer, Marie van Goethem, lived near his studio and took classes at the Opéra’s ballet school. She was one of three sisters, all training to become ballerinas, and all apparently sketched by Degas. According to Martine Kahane, Marie passed all her early exams, rising from the ranks of petit rats to enter the corps de ballet at 15, a year after Degas made the sculpture. But only two years later, she was dismissed because she was late or absent at the ballet too often. Madame van Goethem, a widow who was working as a laundress, was apparently prostituting her daughters. In an 1882 newspaper clipping titled “Paris at Night,” Marie was said to be a regular at two all-night cafés, the Rat Mort and the brasserie des Martyrs, hangouts of artists, models, bohemians, journalists and worse. The writer continued, “Her mother . . . But no: I don’t want to say any more. I’d say things that would make one blush, or make one cry.” Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, was arrested for stealing money from her lover’s wallet at a bar called Le Chat Noir, and landed in jail for three months. The youngest sister, Charlotte, became a soloist with the Ballet and, it would be nice to think, lived happily ever after. But Marie seems to have disappeared without a trace.

Emile Zola made novels of such tales, and now the Opéra’s ballet master, Patrice Bart, 58, has turned Marie’s story into a modern ballet. For Bart, who joined the ballet school at age 10, it’s a labor of love. “A lot of the story took place in the Palais Garnier,” he says. “And I have been living in the Palais Garnier for 42 years. Voilà!” He won a place in the corps de ballet at 14, and became an étoile, or star, in his 20s. In the 1980s he danced for the company’s renowned director, Russian defector Rudolf Nureyev, and at age 40 he took on the role of ballet master and choreographer.

In his new ballet, Bart comes to grips with the same issue that confronted Degas: the synthesis of tradition and innovation. “I was a classical dancer,” he says, “and I try to move slightly toward the modern stuff.” Nureyev, he says, taught him to be aware of new ways of thinking, of dancing. “If you deny this, he believed, it will be the end of classical ballet. And that’s what Degas did, working in a classical world, but the painting was very modern.”

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