Degas’s Little Dancer Inspires New Musical

The production brings a wax ballerina to life.

Tiler Peck in costume as Edgar Degas muse Marie van Goethem for the new musical Little Dancer. Photo: Matthew Karas, courtesy the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.
Tiler Peck in costume as Edgar Degas muse Marie van Goethem for the new musical Little Dancer. Photo: Matthew Karas, courtesy the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.

Little Dancer Age Fourteen, Edgar Degas‘s groundbreaking wax sculpture, is the inspiration for a new musical that opens at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, this weekend, reports the Associated Press.

Created between 1878 and 1881, Little Dancer was meant to debut at the fifth Impressionist exhibition of 1880, but Degas spent another year working on the piece. It met with mixed reviews at the following year’s edition, and he never publicly exhibited it, or any of its many bronze copies, again. Many critics were not sure of what to make of the unprecedented inclusion of non-art materials—Degas dressed his diminutive wax dancer in a real cotton-and-silk tutu and linen slippers, and used real human hair, tied up with a silk-and-linen ribbon.

The model for the statue was a young dancer named Marie van Goethem, a member of the Paris Ballet ballet company. The new musical explores her relationship with Degas (avoiding any hint impropriety on the artist’s part). Born into a poor family in 1865, van Goethem began dancing at a young age, and earned a supplemental income by posing for Degas. Marie disappeared from history after being fired from the ballet in 1882.

“I would wonder about that little girl,” director and choreographer Susan Stroman told the AP. “Like, ‘Who was she? Why did he choose her?’ She looked different from all the other ballerinas that he would paint, and you could tell that she had spirit, she had character.”

“They love to bicker, Degas and Marie,” added Tiler Peck, the New York City Ballet principal dancer who plays van Goethem opposite four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines. “He’s finally met a ballerina who isn’t afraid to speak.”

The Little Dancer Company view Edgar Degas's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, at the National Gallery of in Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: courtesy the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.

The Little Dancer Company view Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, at the National Gallery of in Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: courtesy the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC.

The production’s book and lyrics are written by Lynn Ahrens, who was intrigued by a bronze copy of the statue she encountered at the Clark Institute in Massachusetts. “I began to see a story emerging about an artist who was beginning to go blind, who was frightened that he was losing his power to paint,” she explained to NPR. “Into his life, somehow, walks a little girl who inspires him, in some way, because she is such an urchin, such a spirit and a stubborn soul, and he begins to sketch her and suddenly decides that he wants to sculpt.”

The play is about more than just artistic genius however, Stroman is quick to point out. “It’s a serious story, because it does touch on the plight of women in Paris in 1881, and what their options were,” she told the AP—ballet could help a young girl escape poverty, but could also lead to a life as a courtesan or prostitute.

Like history, the show doesn’t reveal what becomes of van Goethem, but it does hint at several possible paths her life could have taken, ending on a hopeful note. “She was a complete survivor,” said Peck.

Little Dancer begins previews tomorrow, October 25, and will run through November 20 at the Kennedy Center. It is accompanied by the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Degas’s Little Dancer,” which includes the original wax statue and a number of related works, including 13 pieces from the museum’s collection. It is on view through January 11, 2015.


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