and the Dance'
Philadelphia Museum of Art
by Jeff Kuo
April 15, 2003
Of course as one goes about
one’s business, one can’t help but run across Degas’ ballerinas and theatrical
portrayals. Most any museum with ambitions to a reasonable offering of
Impressionist and early modern art will offer at least a few corps d’ballet
in charcoal and pastel on paper or an assortment of yawning, resting,
stretching coryphées canvases. But, the tendency has usually been to focus
more on the formal and thematic innovations in Degas’ art than on the
subjects themselves. I sense that to the average curatorial eye, Degas’
ballerinas are important less for themselves than as examples of the ways
in which they locate Degas in a particular historical, social, and artistic
milieu. The dancers are less dancers than they are examples of a somewhat
lowish, bourgeois subject rendered on canvases that owed less and less
to an aesthetic of representation than to one of re-presentation.
There is nothing wrong with emphasizing Degas’ place in the longer history
of art, but this exhibition’s efforts go a long ways towards making the
case for looking at Degas’ ballerinas as dancers. “Degas and the Dance,”
curated by Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, is billed as the single
largest gathering of Degas’ ballet inspired art and is a joint production
of the American Federation of Arts, the Detroit Institute of Art, and
the Philadelphia Museum of the Arts.
To emphasize the inspiration Degas drew from the ballet, the various paintings,
drawings, and sculpture that make up the exhibit are roughly organized
around the balletic world of the Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier .
The artwork space is segregated by themes such as the classroom, the stage,
the wings, portraits, and so on (I can only give a rough outline because
I didn’t take many notes).
Girls sitting, stretching, repining—these figure seem so familiar. But,
there are unexpected moments as well—in “The Dance Lesson” (c.1879) there
is a distinctly modern look to the girl in the red wrap sitting with one
hand held to her head while the others check their waist ribbons and fluff
their tutu skirts—with one hand to her lowered head, she might be furtively
whispering into a cell phone. And, the middle girl of three in “Three
Dancers in Yellow Skirts” (c.1899) is holding something to her mouth that
looks suspiciously like an energy drink.
“Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” (1878-1881) appears to be the crowd favorite
today. Modeled by Marie van Goethem, one of three sisters who attended
the Opera dance school, “Little Dancer” was sculpted in wax and adorned
with lifelike skirt and adornments and apparently caused a sensation at
its premiere due to its precocious subject and unusual treatment. In the
exhibition catalogue, the essay, “Making of a Dancer,” gives us perhaps
a little too much information about little Marie who apparently frequented
the brasserie des Martyrs and the Rat Mort and who was dismissed for truancy.
Degas apparently negotiated the “highly nuanced terrain” of the Opera
ballet lifestyle as the curators phrase it.
Some of the canvases have me somewhat worried. There is indeed a somewhat
sinister dark, masculine outline in several pictures whom I have gotten
to calling "the stalker."
One of my favorites include some historical pieces such as the companion,
“The Ballet from ‘Robert le Diable’” (1872) and “Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s
Opera ‘Robert le Diable’” (1876). Both depicts the fantastic “Dance of
the Nuns” scene which I believe the proto-archetype of that form, the
ballet blanc which has continued on in ballets down the years
such as “Giselle,” “Kingdom of the Shades,” the “Facades” movement of
Robbins’ “Glass Pieces,” and even the Brides’ dance in the Stevenson “Dracula.”
Of the two I like the earlier canvas because it shows busy opera goers
doing that most opera-going thing—totally ignoring the action onstage
to scope out the balcony with opera glasses.
Of course there’s more but if you’re in a position to stop by the PMA,
you’ll find that apart from attending actual performance, there is perhaps
no better way for a dance enthusiast to spend part of an afternoon.
And, even after getting out of the show, there are unexpected pleasures
all throughout the PMA, such as a video installation showing Merce Cunningham
in “Part I, Blue Studio.” And if you’d like a reprise of Anna Teresa de
Keersmaeker rambling schizophrenic-like through dark woods reciting “Tippeke,”
a Flemish fairytale about a young boy named Tippeke who refuses to go
home unless his mother carries him (I didn't know this...had to read it
in the pamphlet), you’ll find the video installation on first floor towards
the back of the museum.
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