Friday, September 5, 2008

New York Times Article on Degas' Ballet Students

The Arts section of the New York Times is always a great read. A few days ago they had an article entitled "Degas' Ballet Students Teach the Lesson of Their Art", that takes a closer look at the actual ballet technique of the students in Degas' paintings. At the Met, Degas' work takes fills up two rooms (one room of paintings, one of sculpture) and his work is found in four additional rooms as well. Five of the six rooms include works developed around the theme of ballet.

Showing the world of ballet with new kinds of truthfulness, they helped to make his fame during his lifetime. They have never lost their renown, and some grow only more complex with analysis. The relatively simple statuettes, about which Degas liked to speak as if they were not serious, repay multiple viewings. He shows ballet as a world of both idealism and facts. "

"it remains astonishing how few of his dancers are actually dancing. The rest are stretching, adjusting ribbons and costumes, waiting in the wings, resting, gossiping or watching what performing there is."

And when the dancers are actually engaged in ballet, they often exhibit questionable technique. Or, perhaps, technique that was acceptable in Degas' day, but is frowned upon in modern times.

I love the way the author closes the article. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reference won me over--I just love that movie:

"In these paintings Degas takes a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” view of ballet, seeing it askew, from a distance, at an angle from which it was never intended to be viewed. He probably changed the specifics of any ballet room he visited to fit his idea. The result, paradoxically, is that he gives us a vision we believe wholeheartedly, a truth in which he addresses many layers of being."


willow said...

I have not seen or even thought of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" in years! I'm adding it to my Netflix rental queue right now. Nice post.

Margaret said...

Such a great film, isn't it? My sister actually turned our family onto the film after she saw it in her high school Shakespeare class. Now I want to see it again!

A World Away said...

Haven't heard of that movie... more movies to see, books to read and places to go.

Margaret said...

There are just way too many movies and books out there! But I love the premise behind the story of Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead--seeing Hamlet from a totally different perspective. It definitely makes you think twice about the story!

lotusgreen said...

as the japanese did, degas portrayed theater people and courtesans. both often tended to groom in public, be half- or full-naked much of the time, and around whom he could putter around invisibly.

that was my impression, anyway, so i just went to look it up, and yes, that was stuff i'd come across in my research. the thing i didn't realize though, till today, was that, also like japan kabuki actors, the ballerinas in france at that time were also courtesans.

i guess both cultures were interested in background views of their lives.

Margaret said...

Hmm, interesting, Lotusgreen! I read a while ago about one of Degas ballerina sculptures--the little girl in the sculpture grew up to be a prostitute--quite a sad story actually. But perhaps it was a rather common one...Still, I think by the 19th century there were plenty of professional dancers who were NOT prostitutes, but I'll look into it further.

skatej said...

Most "opera brats", which ballerinas really tended to be, grew up in the opera house, almost always clothed in dance costume, and were exposed to the type of people who found their way to the theatre (often drunkards, sex always at the forefront). From a former dancer's perspective I think it would be easier to fall into the line of promiscuity simply because dancers really have few boundaries. A teacher will come up to you at the barre and may touch any part of your body to make you stand correctly or feel how a muscle moves. So being touched all over becomes normal, and then the culture of the day saying that to be onstage, especially for a woman, was an ultimate disgrace, these women probably grew to a point where sex was just another part of life, and the stage door johnnys all bought them pretty thigns. I don't remember reading about opera houses also being brothels.
Degas has always interested me because he really doesn't focus on technique, but goes on to the nitty gritty, a tired dancer stretching or a bunch of young girls watching a performance from the wings. Those are scenes you'll find in pretty much every ballet theatre you may visit, but still scenes that someone who only sees the performance side of ballet may never see.
[typed while under pain pill influence, rabbit trail thoughts are an inevitable consequence for which I apologize!]

Margaret said...

That makes a lot of sense, Kate--thank-you for the dancer's perspective. I hope you are feeling better soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Margaret, thanks for the posts on Botticelli.

In England there was a tendancy to think of any woman parading herself in public for money as being almost a prostitute as late as the Edwardian era. In high society, families would entertain their guests with things like singing or music, and dressing to re-enact a scene from a thought well of book, but this was only in their homes.
A traditional middle class family would've been horrified if their daughter wished to go on the stage in any profession, even well into the last century.

Anonymous said...

Sorry forgot to add we did "R+G are Dead" at school in English lit. I can see the similarities with Degas -drawing the background instead of the main stage figures.

I have a little something for you on my blog.
In Appreciation,

willow said...

Margaret, I have a little something for you at Willow Manor...come on over! :)

Thorsprincess said...

I think the composition is especially interesting, as the NYT article pointed out, that the unusual view Degas presented of the ballet is one of lines in need and in process of correction. If you look at his entire presentation of the scene--from the ballet dancers to the boards on the floor, the cracks in the ceiling, the messy line that the eye follows--every line is in need or in process of correction. It is a study in line and distraction and correction. I liked that way of looking at the scene. Maman

lotusgreen said...

i found a story on the web telling of a prima ballerina being offered jewels as rich men tried to court her as she took her bows.

if i'm remembering correctly, this was a time that women earned, or rather had access to, money usually only by becoming courtesan to a wealthy man, or even men. coco chanel, colette, sarah bernhardt, and many others found ways to make names for themselves otherwise by financing their careers by selling it.

Sheramy said...

I saw the NY Times article as well, and thought it very interesting!

R&T Are Dead is a great film. I'll watch just about anything with sexy little Tim Roth. ;-) (who, of course, played Vincent in 'Vincent and Theo')

Margaret said...

Very true, Lotus Green. The 19th century was certainly a very difficult time to be successful as a woman without making major sacrifices (though we could almost say the same thing today!).

Sheramy: yeah, I really enjoyed this article! I haven't seen "Vincent and Theo" yet--I'll have to pick it up!