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The little dancer’s story

/ 02:09 AM November 19, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—An artist in the twilight of his life and career, the light dimming, the energy flagging. A girl on the cusp of womanhood, about to fulfill her dream, her flights of fancy taking off.

Together, the pair makes an incongruous partnership. The artist searching for a model who will embody everything he wants to say about artistry and the boldness demanded of those who would pursue it. The girl looking for a patron who will allow her to continue dancing and pursue her still elusive ambitions.

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This is the duo at the heart of the new musical, “Little Dancer,” which plays at the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center until the end of the month. It tells the story—in a mix of fancy and fact—behind the sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Edgar Degas, who is known as “the artist of the ballet” for his body of work that explores and celebrates the world of the ballet, especially the women who, in their toe shoes and filmy tutus, embody grace, fantasy, lightness and beauty.

And yet the figure of the “little dancer,” which has only previously been seen as bronze copies of the larger original in wax, is mysteriously earth-bound. She stands with one foot forward, her head thrown back, life-like and yet embodying the grace and strength required of the ballerina.

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When she was first exhibited in Paris in 1881, the little dancer caused quite a stir, we are told. “Many critics were not sure what to make of the unprecedented use of materials—the statue was originally sculpted in wax, with real human hair and a real dancer’s tutu and linen slippers,” according to information material on the exhibition of Degas’ works coinciding with the musical. In the musical, the viewing public is depicted as turning away with disgust at the depiction of the young ballerina, and soon rumors spread of an illicit relationship between the little dancer and the aging painter and sculptor.

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WE FIRST meet Marie van Goethem as a gamine, roving the back streets of Paris delivering laundry for her mother and picking the pockets of the wealthy to buy her silken shoes.

Unlike the other girls in the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet, Marie is poor and struggling, seeking to find the means to finance her dreams and avoid the fate that befell both her mother and older sister, who left the world of dance for prostitution and alcoholism.

An encounter with the elderly Degas and a stolen pocket watch lead Marie to the artist’s studio. There he sees in the girl a model for his study of movement, color and artistry. Lured by the extra income she makes as an artist’s model, Marie becomes increasingly curious about how Degas sees her, especially in the sculpture which the artist, his eyesight failing, takes on as a coda to his lifetime of devotion to the world of dance.

But it is not all grace and light in the world Marie moves in. Wealthy men, lured by the ephemeral beauty of the ballet, hover around the dancers, their access facilitated by the company manager who counts on them as patrons and benefactors. Then there is love—and hormones—and the temptation of simply leaving the world of dance for the mundane realities of marriage and motherhood. Where will Marie go? To whom shall she turn?

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DIRECTED and choreographed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, “The Little Dancer” exposes the highs and lows of late-19th-century Paris, where high art and base ambitions mingle.

Tony Award winners Boyd Gaines as Degas and Rebecca Luker as the adult Marie lend their considerable talents and stage presence to the musical, but the entire production belongs to Tiler Peck, as the young Marie.

A principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, Peck is expected to dance up a storm and, as my daughter, a former ballet student herself, pointed out, put the rest of the cast who play ballerinas decidedly in the shade.

But one doesn’t expect a ballerina to sing so well, or infuse such energy and verve into her tomboyish, vivacious character.

And art lovers might want to keep a sharp eye out for scenes seemingly lifted straight out of Degas’ paintings, as Stroman manipulates scenes, places dancers just so, to give us fleeting glimpses of the artist’s body of work.

Filipinos in the audience might also spot one of our own as a member of the ballet corps, mainly because she is named Jolina Javier, a Fil-Am who is undergoing ballet training in several prestigious workshops.

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THINGS don’t turn out well in this partnership between artist and model. After the overwhelmingly negative reception to the only sculptural piece he ever exhibited, Degas had the “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” packed up in a crate, never to be shown in public in his lifetime. Thwarted in her dreams because she had become such a controversial figure, Marie was forced to make her own way in the world, making sure that her younger sister became a dancer, too, bringing her own dreams to life.

After his death, at the request of his family, bronze models of Degas’ little dancer were fashioned and can be found in museums around the world. The original sculpture of wax was purchased by the Mellon family and is now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

It is only fitting that at the end of the show, the lead stars lay their bouquets at the foot of (what I hope is a replica of) “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” Here she is in all her awkward, lifelike beauty. Boisterous and brave in life, Marie lives on, embodying the dreams of all girls who fantasize about floating onstage in silk shoes and tulle skirts, like Marie who has become the most famous dancer in the world.

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TAGS: “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”, “The Little Dancer”, arts, Boyd Gaines, dance, Dancing, Degas, Degas’ little dancer, Marie van Goethem, Mellon family, museums, National Gallery of Art, Paris Opera Ballet, Rebecca Luker, Susan Stroman, Tony Award
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