Sunday, December 20, 2009
Degas and his ballet girls
Degas turned to painting and drawing ballet girls in the 1870s, having obtained a pass to attend rehearsals; it is estimated he portrayed them in sketch or final work at least 1500 times.
The ballet girls were then lowly paid working girls, dancing to bring their families out of poverty, often accepting a wealthy lover to pay the bills. (The young adult novel Marie Dancing by Carolyn Meyer is a wonderful portrayal of Degas and the young girl who modeled for his Little Dancer.) Degas was also fascinated by the angles of the gaslit theater which the Goncourts in their journals described as "tenebrous and glimmering...forms that disappear into shadows in the smoky, dusty silence."
The young girls, pushed by their mothers into the world, were often desperate and hungry, an odd reality which one does not see in their delicate depictions by the intense Degas. And, one might ask, where are the male dancers? Where was the Parisian Nureyev? Ah, but ballet in 19th century Paris was almost entirely feminine! When Coppelia was performed in 1870, even the principal male role was danced by a woman! No lifting the prima ballerina above "his" head, I imagine! But all this is another story, belonging more to the history of the ballet than a blog on the French impressionists.