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This month marks an unprecedented partnership between the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery of Art: a coordinated exhibition and new musical celebrating Edgar Degas’ iconic 1881 sculpture, “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans.”
The National Gallery opened “Degas’s Little Dancer” last Sunday, and the Kennedy Center musical, aptly titled “Little Dancer,” is currently in final rehearsals. Starring four-time Tony-winner Boyd Gaines as Degas and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck in the title role, the show premieres October 25.
Arts Desk chatted with Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s new president, and Alison Luchs, the NGA’s sculpture head to talk about the collaboration as it all comes to life and why it could only happen here in DC.
WCP: How did this partnership between the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery come about?
Deborah Rutter: What’s really fabulous is that it came about simply. Over a year ago, members of our team called the National Gallery and just said “we’re going to do this production—-wouldn’t it be great to have a collaboration?” The gallery was very generous in responding, saying “yes, we’d like to collaborate and put together an exhibition.” And here we are! It’s turned out to be a really great sort of natural collaboration.
The National Gallery has the third largest Degas collection in the world, including the original wax of “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”—-the only version of the sculpture that Degas himself ever touched. Did that have anything to do with the decision to premiere this new show at the Kennedy Center?
DR: As far as I know, it did not. But maybe we’ll start up a lore of some sort about the story!
So just a happy coincidence, this.
DR: A very happy coincidence, really. We at the Kennedy Center had seen and participated in some of the workshops, the early readings, and other early work that was being done on the project and decided to sign on as producer of the musical based on our strong belief in the team of creators.
It seems like the story could be a real art-history lesson.
DR: It is indeed an art-history experience, although we really don’t know much of anything about Marie Van Goethem, so it’s a little bit imagined. You know, oftentimes great art is a mix of reality with a little fiction on top of it, but the whole story and the relationship between the artist and the dancers, what it was like then to be a dancer, all of that comes out in the history, so there’s a fair bit of grounding in that. I think it’s great to be able to have multiple art forms in a theater piece like this—-we’ve got all of the art, great singing, great dancing, and that bit of history—so it’s just a really wonderful production.
Speaking of the history: The scene with those young dancers that Degas painted seems so storybook and glamorous. But it was nothing of the sort, was it? Does that come through in the show?
DR: They were urchins—-truly urchins! They called themselves the Paris Opera rats, and that’s certainly a part of our story. Absolutely. The hard work and perseverance—-you can really see it in the sculpture—-the amount of pride and determination that it takes to be a dancer comes through, and that’s what makes it so extraordinary. It’s not just the physical nature of it, but the personality that you see in the face and the pose. And you feel that throughout the musical.
Alison, you’re the acting head of sculpture and decorative arts here at the National Gallery. As someone whose life’s work involves sculpture, it doesn’t get much better than this, does it? I mean, considering the Degas portion of the collection alone…
Alison Luchs: It’s pretty exciting. And it’s wonderful to be able to help people understand that the original Degas sculptures, at least a very high percentage of them, with 52 of the 70 surviving lifetime works, are right here.
AL: Yes! The sculptures are quite famous because of the beautiful bronze casts that are in museums and collections all over the world, but those were all made after his death.
And his actual version of “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is the one here in wax, correct? He never cast one?
AL: He never cast a single version of it, no.
Do we know if he intended to, or was the wax version his intended finished product?
AL: The wax version is certainly his finished product in the case of the “Little Dancer.” For his other small sculptures, once in a while he would say “maybe I’ll let the founder come,” but this is the only one that he actually made for an exhibition. We don’t know for certain that he didn’t make it as an experiment and then decide to exhibit it. But this is the largest and the only one that he ever put on pubic exhibition—-for all of two weeks—-in 1881. He built it up very carefully over a metal armature, using wax, clay…and when he had completed the figure, he dressed it in real cloth and a wig of human hair. For a long time we weren’t sure if it was human hair or horse hair, but our conservators—-who did this wonderful book you should know about called Edgar Degas Sculpture—-did all kinds of studies and determined that it is definitely human hair.
I’m sure you’ve seen the wonderful photographs of Tiler Peck all dressed up in costume as Marie Van Goethem that the Kennedy Center has released.
AL: Oh! It was really jaw-dropping to see how carefully they have brought to life this sculptural figure.
Have you gotten a sneak peek beyond what the rest of us have seen? Have you read it?
AL: I haven’t seen or read it, and I’ll be fascinated to. It’s hard to judge in advance, but I can definitely see how the sculpture and the mystery of what became of Marie would inspire literature of any kind. There are novels, I think, and because it involves another art form, ballet, it seems natural that there would be the inspiration to create a great piece of theater around it. And the fact that it is ballet theater and musical theater makes it all the more exciting. Beyond that, I can’t say much until I see it. I don’t have any fixed conception of what they ought to do.
Most people don’t realize that, when it comes to Degas and his young ballerina subjects, this was not a glamorous, upscale scene that he was painting. These were not little princesses—-and that’s apparently a lesson of the musical as well.
AL: Exactly. That was part of what fascinated him about them and what endeared them to him, I think. These were, for the most part—-not all, but for the most part—-girls from working-class families who had a slim chance to rise above those origins and become stars. Become queens, I guess. He uses that term in one of his poems. It’s not well known that Degas wrote poetry! In 1889 he wrote a series of sonnets about subjects that were dear to him and one of them is about a little dancer.
AL: Yes! He calls her a gamin ailé—-a winged urchin—-and he talks about how she is a creature from the streets of Paris. Her ancestors are from Montmartre, he says, and he states his hope at the end: May she hold fast in the palace her race in the street. He wants her to become a real star, a dancer, without ever forgetting that she comes from the streets of Paris. He really loves that contrast and that fusion.
There’s been a lot of Degas here at the NGA of late, what with the wonderful and wildly successful Degas-Cassatt show that just closed. Once this “Little Dancer” show runs its course, will you all tuck away the Degas for awhile?
AL: Never! No. Degas is always loved, always in fashion, always fascinating.
Do you think this collaboration will inspire future projects? Maybe a Van Gogh Show? Lautrec?
AL: It’s hard to say! As you know, there have been Van Gogh plays and films. There have been novels…but this is such a unique situation. I would love to think of another case where that might happen, but I think the sheer charisma of this sculpture, the “Little Dancer”, is a special case.