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Degas' Little Dancer Returns to the Opera


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 June 2003 - The story behind Degas' Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans, the appealing bronze statue immortalised in her little glass cage and placed in the Orsay museum in Paris in 1931, began some fifty years earlier, when Marie Van Goethem, pupil at the Opera school, posed for Edgar Degas in his studio, Rue Saint Georges.

She was one of three sisters, all of whom attended the Paris Opera school, who not only modelled for artists to make ends meet, but were pushed into prostitution by their mother. Only her sister Charlotte led a respectable career, becoming a teacher at the Opera where, in 1927 , she had amongst her pupils a certain Yvette Chauviré, the most prestigious French ballerina of her time, teacher at the Opera herself until her recent retirement.

" I realised it was a perfect subject for a ballet with the Palais Garnier at the centre of the story ", exclaimed ballet director, Brigitte Lefèvre. " La Petite Danseuse divided her time between the Opera, the infamous rue Notre-Dame -de-Lorette, leading to the Place Breda where she lived, and the "Chat noir", in Montmartre, just down the road. She's part of the history of the company in the nineteenth century. The pictures painted by Degas were of our dancers and teachers".

She had been reading the research on La Petite Danseuse de Degas written by Martine Kahane, the curator and director of the Opera's cultural department. The Orsay Museum had asked her to restore the muslin tutu on their statue. Her curiosity aroused, she had seized upon the occasion to investigate more closely into the origins of the work.

Since no one knew the company better than Patrice Bart who has been here for over forty-three years now, Lefèvre asked him to create a full length ballet."

La petite danseuse
La Petite Danseuse
© Photo: Icare

"I was fascinated by the idea", Bart, ballet master associé à la direction de la danse, told me in his office between rehearsals. "I immediately got hold of all the books on Degas I could find. Look", he said, showing me a book by Georgia Sion, Degas - Les Danseuses, and flicking the pages over slowly one by one. "The whole atmosphere is there, from the ballet master, Jules Perrot, giving classes at the Paris Opera, to the costumes, lighting, and poses of the dancers along the barre. I wanted to create scenes out of these works, and bring them to life in dance, and so one of the earliest things I did was to give to the girls in the corps de ballet photo copies of these paintings. The world of the little dancer is the world of the nineteenth century at the Opera."

"This is the first completely original ballet I have created, "he continued. "Earlier works for the company, such as my 1996 version of Coppelia already had music and a strong story line. So, starting from the true facts which show the seedier side of life at a time when girls from needy families had little choice besides working as a laundress, a dancer, or a prostitute, I launched into an imaginary world, inventing other characters as I went along to make a classical ballet. It's quite a sinister tale.

"To create a traditional work, I had to follow a certain structure. I needed some male characters for the pas de deux, because there was only Marie and her mother, a very lugubrious character; the creation of a ballet master, omnipresent in the paintings in white trousers and red shirt, became obvious."

"Next, I needed a partner for the petite danseuse, and so I invented the Abonné. Despite the fact she's only fourteen she's at the Opera, in Society, and surrounded by these "gallant gentlemen", who offered their protection in exchange for sexual favours and who had the run of the place. They were ever present, at rehearsals, in the dressing rooms, and in the wings during performances. Of course the little danseuse sees him as the ideal man and not at all like the seducer that he is. And then, as I noticed a solitary figure lurking around in the background of several paintings, I brought in the Man in Black, who represents both Degas himself and Destiny who gets the last word.

As the dream of the little dancer was to become an étoile, Bart created that role too. She's fulfilled and happy, enjoying the prestige due to her rank, and in addition to bringing a more positive side to the ballet, she also provides a partner for the ballet master."

"I had to get the whole ballet together before bringing in Denis Levaillant, who composed the music", Bart told me. "There again, nothing was easy as I'd always choreographed to existing music, and now I had to tell someone in advance what I needed, whether for a pas de deux here or a variation there. But after working together for over a year, it finally turned out quite well. Then Sylvie Skinazi, ex-assistant to Christian Lacroix joined us to design the costumes, and the difficulty here was in making all her fabulous ideas danceable."

Skinazi not only spent time analysing the works of Degas, but also drew inspiration from the literary world of Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust. She said that the laundresses in the White Scene came straight out of the writings of the latter, and added that the scene in the cabaret, predominantly in red and purple, came almost directly from a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. The street scenes were inspired by the works of Caillebotte.

I was fortunate enough to be taken on a private visit to the Opera workshops, and actually saw the sumptuous costumes being made. The detail given to each and every outfit, including that of the least important figurant whose costume was sewn with the same meticulous care as that of the étoiles was impressive. I watched in amazement as the seamstresses carefully pinned each small ruffle separately on the hats to be worn by the women in black, echoes of the pictures of Edouard Manet when the women, I was told, would be relegated to the far back of the action. Nothing was machine-made. Each of the sequins on the extraordinarily beautiful dresses designed for the danseuse étoile was being stitched on by hand.

The dresses of the ballerinas to be worn in the scene, "La classe de danse", were exquisite. The soft white tutus of tarlatan with their large ribbons of pale turquoise, rose pink and sky blue came straight from the brush of Degas, and looked oddly misplaced on the rails backstage.

"However ", Bart told me, " the casting proved to be very easy. Before I started, I wanted Laetitia Pujol as the little dancer, with Yann Saiz as her seducer. Both had the exact physique required. Agnès Letestu, with her beauty and allure was my étoile, and then I chose Wilfrid Romoli in alternance with Yann Bridard, a tremendously interesting interpreter, as the Man in Black. Each of them see the part differently, and dance it in very different ways. To balance the star quality and glamour of Letestu, Jean-Guillaume Bart, with his neatness and concern with detail seemed the ideal ballet master. I was also very pleased when Elisabeth Maurin accepted to take the role of the mother, a hard, hypocritical, unsavoury character. Then I created the steps around them."

"I've tried my best to bring the Orsay museum here", he concluded. "The paintings there mingle with our own in the Opera's Bibliothèque-Musée. The decor of the second tableau owes its existence to Paul Renouard's L'Escalier des classes, and we covered the floor with the particular shade of beige so favoured in nineteenth century paintings . But while I've been very influenced by such paintings as Le Foyer de la danse à l'Opera, L'Examen de danse, the different versions of La Lecon de danse, and many of Degas' lesser known works, my aim has been to reflect the values of a shifting world, that of the dream confronted with reality, which in this case, is ignominious. I wanted to create an atmosphere rather than an historical reconstitution. So, as the ballet begins with the statuette in her glass cage, so it ends when she returns to it, pushed by Destiny, the Man in Black, after having been abandoned by the man she loves and dismissed from the Opera. Confronted with the real world, she breaks."

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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