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'Degas 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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