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Mystery of Degas dancer takes to stage

Published on 24/10/2014

In Edgar Degas' celebrated sculpture "The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer," the precocious ballet student holds her head high but with a look of unease as she clasps her arms uncomfortably behind her back.

When musical lyricist Lynn Ahrens took a closer look at the sculpture, she sensed that there must have been a deeper tale between Degas and his model, Paris Opera Ballet student Marie van Goethem.

The result is “Little Dancer,” a musical that probes deeper into what is known — and unknown — about the relationship between the French impressionist great and a girl seen only for posterity in wax.

“For the first time I was looking at a person and I started to wonder about her — who is this little cocky, stubborn girl?” Ahrens told AFP after a recent rehearsal at a Broadway studio.

“The more I got into the research I realized there’s an incredible story to be told here that hasn’t been done on the musical theater stage,” said Ahrens, who won a Tony Award for the musical “Ragtime.

“The musical opens Saturday at the Kennedy Center in Washington, where the original wax sculpture of “The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer” is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

The 1881 statue made Marie for a time a literal face of ballet but little is known about her other than that she hailed from Belgium and lived in poverty.

Ballet students led precarious lives in late 19th-century Paris, scrounging for food and money and often surviving on the largesse of wealthy male patrons.

– Imagining the relationship -“Little Dancer” starts with a fictional telling of how the artist discovered Marie and made her his muse.

In the musical, he catches her trying to steal from him and instead of turning her in to go to prison makes her pose for him.

The musical shows Degas gradually developing a fatherly relationship with Marie but also flashing his short temper with her.

Degas was a notorious curmudgeon and, according to historical accounts, was asexual.

“He was known to be quite cranky and extremely opinionated,” said Boyd Gaines, the Tony Award-winning actor who plays the singing Degas.

“One of the things I kept noticing all around in his diaries and in his letters was how lonely he was.

But of course he pushed people away,” he said.

Ahrens said that she believed that Degas, who was known primarily for his paintings, must have felt differently as he cast Marie into a three-dimensional object.

“I would like to believe that he also saw Marie as three-dimensional and not just as a subject to be painted and then to move on to the next subject.

I think he became emotionally involved with her as a human being,” she said.

– Merging ballet and musicals -“Little Dancer” presented an paradoxical challenge for its creators.

It is a musical, a quintessentially American genre, but the work itself depicts another of the arts, ballet.

The solution was a slight merging of the genres, with Tiler Peck, the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, playing the role of the young Marie.

The so-called 11-o’clock number — the climax of most musicals in which much of the cast sings together — is instead a ballet performance.

“This is probably the first time that actual classical ballet has been used so extensively in the musical theater form,” Ahrens said.

In real life, Marie was fired from the ballet and her later activities were unclear.

The musical portrays an older Marie, played by Broadway star Rebecca Luker, but ends on a question mark about what happened to her.

“I tried to honor the mystery of her fate,” Ahrens said.