18 February 2015

Little Dancer, Inspired by Degas Sculpture, Premieres at Kennedy Center, 1

[The world-première production of the new musical Little Dancer began performances 25 October at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Eisenhower Theater.  The opening was on 20 November and performances continued through 30 November. The play’s title refers to the famous Edgar Degas wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, c. 1881).  Degas’s model was a teenaged ballerina from the Paris Opera Ballet dance school, a young Belgian named Marie van Goethem.  Degas created many wax copies and bronzes of Little Dancer after he sculpted the original, but that statue, purchased by Paul Mellon in 1956, was given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1985.

[“Part fact, part imagination, and set in the harsh backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet,” KC press releases state of the ballet musical, “Little Dancer is inspired by the young ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas and became, inadvertently, the most famous dancer in the world.  Torn by her family’s poverty, her debt to the artist and the lure of wealthy men, Marie struggles to keep her place in the ballet corps—a girl on the verge of womanhood, caught between the conflicting demands of life and art.”

[Workshopped by the Lincoln Center Theatre Company in August 2014, Little Dancer features book and lyrics by Tony Award winner Lynn Ahrens and music by Tony Award winner Stephen Flaherty (both 1998 Best Original Musical Score, Ragtime); the Kennedy Center production was directed and choreographed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (Best Choreography: 1992, Crazy for You; 1995, Show Boat; 2000, Contact; 2001, The Producers; Best Direction of a Musical: 2001, The Producers).  (Ahrens and Flaherty were also responsible for last year’s flop Rocky and Stroman staged both 2013’s Big Fish and last season’s Bullets Over Broadway which together totaled only 254 performances.)  The cast included four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines (1989 Best Featured Actor in a Play, The Heidi Chronicles; 1994 Best Actor in a Musical, She Loves Me; 2000 Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Contact; 2008 Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Gypsy) as artist Edgar Degas, three-time Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker (Best Actress in a Musical: 1995, Show Boat; 2000, The Music Man; 2007, Mary Poppins) as Adult Marie, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck as Young Marie.  The production also had set designs by Beowulf Boritt, costume designs by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Ken Billington, sound design by Kai Harada, and music supervision by David Loud; Shawn Gough conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.  Plans for a Broadway transfer are under consideration, but no announcement has been made.

[The Washington Post did comprehensive coverage of this pre-Broadway première, publishing articles on many aspects of the show and its production.  Because this provides a glimpse into the inner workings of a Broadway-level musical in production as well as the business of producing and promoting a major commercial show, I’ve collected a number of the articles and will post them on ROT as a sort of record of this work.  For the first installment of this examination, I’ve selected three pieces from the Post, starting with an article about star Boyd Gaines and his work as an actor to get into the role of the painter Edgar Degas, Rebecca Ritzel’s “Getting into Degas for ‘Little Dancer.’”  Then I’m presenting a side bar on the simultaneous art exhibit at the National Gallery of Art which was built around Degas’s original statue of Little Dancer, “As Disturbing As Enchanting” by Philip Kennicott, the Post’s review of the exhibit.  That art review is followed by Peter Marks’s “‘Little Dancer’ at The Kennedy Center, with the Accent on ‘Dancer,’” the Post’s review of the opening of Little Dancer, the musical, on 20 November.]

by Rebecca Ritzel

[This article first appeared in the Weekend magazine of the Washington Post on 24 October 2014.]

Just as Edgar Degas began painting dancers after becoming fascinated by backstage life at the Paris Opera, actor Boyd Gaines became intrigued about the musical “Little Dancer” after spotting ballerinas roaming backstage at New York’s Lincoln Center. It was spring 2010, and the four-time Tony Award winner was starring in a play at the venerable performing arts complex. Gaines also came across director Susan Stroman, with whom he had worked on the Tony-winning show “Contact” in 2000.

“I saw all the ballerinas and Stro, and I would say hello,” Gaines recalls. “I was curious as to what she was doing, because it’s always something interesting.”

“Stro” – as she is known in the theater world – was at Lincoln Center workshopping “Little Dancer,” the original musical that begins previews Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Gaines says that, back then, he had no designs on the role of Degas but that he remembered the project. Then, months later, Stroman contacted him: There was to be another round of workshops. Would he like to play the famous impressionist?

Gaines wasted no time. He told Stroman yes and hurried to the Metropolitian Museum of Art to do some homework.

“The research that I started out doing initially was just going out and looking at as much as I could,” the 61-year-old actor says during a dinner break from rehearsals at the Kennedy Center. “Fortunately, there was much I could see in New York, but I did that not knowing what the future of the show would be.”

In 2011, while Gaines was working in London, he took in the Royal Academy exhibition “Degas and the Ballet,” which included 26 studies Degas made before sculpting “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the subject of the new musical, and on a side trip to Paris, he visited the impressionist Musée d’Orsay. Then there were books – volumes of photographs, biographies and books of letters that Gaines can quote from off the top of his head.

“Hopefully, [all the research] gives me a feel for the man who surfaces in the playing of the scenes,” he says. “He’s a fascinating person, very complicated, obsessed and incredibly passionate about art and the making of art itself.”

Gaines holds a sketchbook during much of the time he’s onstage in “Little Dancer,” and will be drawing scenes staged by Stroman and her design team to evoke famous works by Degas. (Don’t ask to see his sketches; he claims they’re terrible.) One, obviously, is the “Little Dancer” statue itself, of Marie van Goethem, Degas’ 14-year-old model from the Paris Opera (played by New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck). Another is “The Absinthe Drinker,” a portrait of a woman sitting dejectedly in a café, a glass of the alcohol in front of her. In the musical, that woman is Marie’s mother, and the rumpled man next to her, the van Goethems’ ne’er-do-well landlord. Those fictional characters are examples of the liberties that composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens took to craft a narrative inspired by static works of art. (In reality, both figures in the painting – an actress and an artist – were friends of Degas.) In the same way, Gaines says that in portraying Degas, he has cherry-picked from his knowledge of the artist.

“This is not a docudrama,” he says. “I have used art historians – stealing at will, and using what helps, and discarding what doesn’t – in order to make the text and lyrics come alive. The story that we are trying to tell is not historically accurate, but it has bits and pieces of the truth in it. Hopefully, the audience will find it truthful.”

Locally, there’s at least one art historian who’s not bothered by the changes: Alison Luchs, the curator of “Degas’s Little Dancer,” an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that opened earlier this month to coincide with the musical. The West Building space – usually used to exhibit European paintings – houses the statue itself and about a dozen of Degas’ dance and opera works, including two recently acquired from the Corcoran Gallery.

When it comes to Degas and “Little Dancer,” Luchs says, “there is room for imagination,” because so little is known about Marie, other than that she was dismissed from the ballet company in 1882. “I believe someday we are going to find an answer, but I almost hope we don’t,” she adds.

The exhibition also includes an 1882 graphite drawing of Degas by French artist Paul Mathey. Degas is shown from an odd angle and appears to be peering at a framed painting. His top hat sits before him on a chair, and his one visible eye is heavy-lidded and sad. The drawing, Luchs says, reminds her of the pictures she has seen of Gaines in the show. “He certainly has the look down,” she says of the actor’s full beard, tailored costumes and pensive bearing.

Both Luchs and Gaines remain committed to learning more about the artist, and both are excited about a lecture Nov. 15 by leading Degas scholar Richard Kendall and his wife, dance historian Jill De Vonyar.

By that point, Gaines will be more than halfway through the musical’s run at the Kennedy Center. Many actors might consider that too late to keep investing in a character, even for a show that is likely headed to Broadway. Not Gaines.

“If Richard Kendall is giving a lecture, I’ll be there,” he says.

[Rebecca Ritzel is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in more than 20 publications in the United States, Canada, and the U.K.  Ritzel regularly contributes arts and entertainment articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer.]

*  *  *  *
by Philip Kennicott

[Edgar Degas’s groundbreaking statuette of a young ballerina that caused a sensation at the 1881 impressionist exhibition takes center stage at the National Gallery of Art in an exploration of Degas’s fascination with ballet and his experimental, modern approach to his work.  Degas’s Little Dancer is presented in conjunction with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ world-premiere musical Little Dancer, which ran from 25 October through 30 November 2014.  This review originally appeared in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 October 2014.]

The best Degas exhibitions take you past the prettiness and straight to the heart of weirdness that makes his work, despite overexposure, always worth further effort. “Degas’ Little Dancer,” a one-room show at the National Gallery of Art, gets straight to the matter, looking under the waxen skin of the artist’s most famous and beloved sculpture and then at a cross section of his fascination with young ballerinas over time. And in almost every one of the 15 works on display, there is something troubling and odd.

In an oil painting made around 1879, “The Dance Lesson,” a young dancer sits in the foreground, apparently lost in thought, or merely exhausted, staring at the floor with her head resting on one hand. But she seems to be sitting on a string bass, which, even given her diminutive frame and the instrument’s substantial bulk, is a very bad idea. In a painting that once belonged to the Corcoran, the “The Dance Class,” a spiral staircase frames two views of the young women, some of them merely legs and skirts descending the circular stairs, another glimpsed through a gap in the metal or wooden form, in a more idealized attitude, as if on stage and fully enveloped in the theatrical fantasy of a performance.

And then there is the Little Dancer herself, which an X-radiograph reveals is made not just of wax, but also clay, rope, wire, padding, paintbrushes (for her arms), and wood and other organic materials. She is, in a sense, made of trash, or at least utilitarian stuff. Knowing this changes our sense of her, from a simple girl with her eyes closed, perhaps anticipating the next step she must take, or wishing she were someplace else, to a more complicated and perhaps pathetic figure. She isn’t pretty or ugly, but a classic example of what the French call “jolie-laide,” which not only combines attributes of both but also suggests a deeper sense of conflict between appearance and inner life.

Making figures out of wax had a long history before Degas made this sculpture – as a preparatory step toward casting something in metal and as a tool for the study of anatomy and the display of anthropological and zoological specimens. The tradition lives on today, in etiolated form, in commercial wax museums. Making sculpture from stone or metal idealized the figures represented; making them out of wax was more disturbingly naturalistic, forcing an encounter with something more organic and more organically connected to flesh and blood. White marble was the stuff of admiration, even worship; brown wax invited a different kind of objectification, something to be studied, dissected and penetrated.

The last of those should be taken with all its implications. The brochure accompanying the exhibition dances around the facts (“Most dancers made very little money and often looked elsewhere for support”), and it doesn’t use the word prostitution, which is unfortunate. Very likely, the girl who posed for Degas (we know her name and have a vague sense of her family and early career on the stage) exchanged sex for money. She certainly had no choice in the matter.

Ballet, at the time, was closely linked to prostitution; the impoverished girls drawn to the ballet were not only forced in many cases to seek income by selling sex, they worked in a system almost perfectly designed to exploit. They were at the mercy of men who made subjective judgments not just on their beauty but their skill, as well. And ballet, like other art forms, offered those men a fantasy of ideal femininity, which could also be pursued through patronizing courtesans, prostitutes and dancers.

In both dance and sexual exploitation, men experienced the great gulf between the fantasy and the means of realizing it. The ideal is never real, the voluptuous swan or handsome prince is in fact an athlete, sweating and straining, and at the behest of the choreographer’s whim. This is not to say that dance is prostitution or that sex workers are to be valued less than artists. But a man like Degas, with a visual fixation on young female dancers, and a deep love of the theater and the society around it, would probably have looked at the young women who were so beautiful, so available and so essential to both artistic and erotic fantasy, and wondered: What is inside them?

It seems likely that the strongly articulated dichotomies in this exhibition – between the whole and the part, the ideal and the real, practice and performance, means and ends – are symptoms of this desire to go from surface to depth, to possess or subjugate intellectually, emotionally and physically the young dancer. Women, for millennia, have been the locus of this frustrating sense that we can never get at the essence of what we most desire, and great violence has been done to them, particularly through religion, by making them embody irreconcilable opposites such as purity and degradation. So the young dancer who sits on the string bass isn’t just doing something odd and unlikely, she is connecting the ground, the bass, the well-springs of desire, to our most seemingly refined, articulated and elusive embodiment of the beautiful.

As our values have changed, as euphemisms like “protector” (i.e., older man who pays girls for the illusion that he is still desirable) have been unmasked, the question of what Degas was doing has become more urgent and painful. Did he capture this girl’s humanity, her defiance of the ugly and exploitative milieu into which she was thrust? Was there a morally redeeming aspect to his visual fixation on the young dancers of the ballet? Or is he working comfortably within the self-satisfied paradigm of misogyny? Those are exactly the questions that must be asked of the new musical, “Little Dancer,” which is inspired by Degas’ statue. It may seem like an obvious thing to do, even a noble one, to give voice to this young woman. But it is complicated, too, and as the work of Degas reminds us, the lines between representation and exploitation are porous. Degas’ dancer isn’t just a sweet girl lost in the moment; she is also Frankenstein and Pygmalion product, a male construction, and no matter how long you stare at her face, you will never know if she is saying no, or yes.

[Degas’s Little Dancer, which opened on 5 October, was on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through 11 January 2015.  Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of the Washington Post.  He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.]

*  *  *  *
by Peter Marks

[Peter Marks’s review of the Kennedy Center première of Little Dancer appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 21 November.]

Love of ballet flows from every pore and plie of “Little Dancer.” The new Kennedy Center musical showcases most rewardingly the technical gifts of Tiler Peck, a beguiling New York City Ballet star cast here as the gamine model for the celebrated Degas sculpture of the show’s title.

That ardor for the dance form and its classical rigor are filtered through the becoming choreography of director Susan Stroman, who, in the footsteps of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, has created as a finale for this musical – still, it seems, deeply in progress – a delightful dream ballet, with Peck at its center.

But musical theater doesn’t live by dance alone. In many of its other particulars – having to do with plotting, character development and expressing interior life through song – “Little Dancer” feels as if it has only scratched the surface of possibility of its story, about the hopes of a talented young dancer, both immortalized and dashed on an artist’s pedestal. So Stroman, composer Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics writer Lynn Ahrens would seem to have more work to do if “Little Dancer” is to sweep out the cliches and present itself as more than just another pretty face.

The venture is an intriguing one-off for the Kennedy Center: an original musical produced entirely by the institution and conceived under its past president, Michael M. Kaiser. Having recruited a top-tier assortment of Broadway pros – other major roles are filled by Boyd Gaines, Karen Ziemba and Rebecca Luker, and the designers include William Ivey Long (costumes) and Beowulf Boritt (sets) – Kaiser put this project on a promising path, and on a scale of ambition commensurate with the center’s place in the arts ecosystem.

The results in the Eisenhower Theater – where, after a nearly four-week preview period, the show officially opened Thursday night – reveal a fairly pedestrian tale, buoyed at times by a romantic musicality redolent of Belle Époque Paris and a smart, eye-catching design. The towering, rotating panels of Boritt’s set resemble artists’ stretched canvases, on which projection designer Benjamin Pearcy splashes a changing pattern of vibrant, colliding colors, enhanced by Ken Billington’s lighting. (This is, after all, the age of impressionism.) Long, too, is entirely in his element here, dreaming up outfits for the women worthy of Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, as well as tutus for the dancers that give them the air of soignée sprites.

As the show is inspired by an object, albeit a dazzling one – the expressive Edgar Degas sculpture whose original wax version is in the National Gallery of Art – the show’s creators had a formidable assignment: making a statue breathe. To do so, Stroman, Ahrens and Flaherty used the mysterious fate of Marie van Goethem, the Paris Opera Ballet student who posed for Degas, as the linchpin of their musical. The insufficiency of the exploration of Marie, however, is the show’s biggest weakness.

If another musical tale set in the impressionist era, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” is about the relationship between an artist and his painting, “Little Dancer” is the story of an artist and his subject. Marie is such a vital character that she has been split in two here: At the beginning of the musical, an older, sadder Marie, portrayed (and sung lusciously) by Luker, visits Degas’s atelier just after he has died, in hopes of seeing the artwork. It’s this scene that triggers the musical’s warmest, most memorable melody, “C’est le Ballet,” but also triggers the question that dogs the entire evening: Why exactly does Adult Marie keep popping up?

We will, eventually, get an answer, but in the interim, Adult Marie feels less like a person than a narrative device, and why and what she’s remembering, and for whom, are lost in the onrush of subplots and pirouettes. The story of her younger, more carefree self, embodied by Peck, unfolds more concretely. The impoverished Marie is competing with richer girls for a featured role in the latest Paris Opera Ballet production and trying to provide for her little sister (Sophia Anne Caruso) and alcoholic mother (Ziemba, agile as always).

Peck’s Marie is a little sunnier than might be expected of a girl who has known hardship; there’s a beaming indefatigability about her that reminds you of Annie Warbucks or a Disney heroine. More oddly, though, among the show’s two dozen songs, none is a number that lets us inside Young Marie’s thoughts. Why does she so desperately want to dance? How does she feel about the handsome street singer (Kyle Harris) hanging around, forever seeming ready to burst into “On the Street Where You Live”? Why does she risk her ballet career by sneaking off to pose for Degas? An idea suggests itself: Maybe Luker is there to interpret Young Marie’s feelings in song and Peck, in dance. It proves an idle notion.

A lack of development also afflicts the bond between Marie and Degas, played by an impressively crusty and, owing to the artist’s failing eyesight, short-fused Gaines. Not until late in the second act and the song “A Box of Things” are they accorded a duet of any moment. The withholding inclination of this show unreasonably restricts our access to the characters, leaving us waiting in vain to discover more about them. At the same time, it bogs down an audience in unrewarding side stories, such as the travails of Marie’s older sister Antoinette (Jenny Powers), who escapes penury by attaching herself to a refined Parisian brute (Sean Martin Hingston).

The more finely wrought diversions of “Little Dancer” occur when Stroman and her corps of dancers remind us that this is indeed a musical about ballet. These dance sequences offer the most invigorating exposure in a musical to the beauty of the form since “Billy Elliot.” Stroman’s choreography here betokens the passion for dance she infused so exhilaratingly into “Contact,” her Tony-winning triptych of dance-theater pieces.

Whenever Peck is sent leaping and spinning, it’s as if the hindering tethers on “Little Dancer” come off, too. And the musical is set free.

[Little Dancer: Music by Stephen Flaherty, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Benjamin Pearcy; music supervisor, David Loud; orchestrations, Doug Besterman and Larry Hochman; music director, Shawn Gough. With Janet Dickinson, Jolina Javier, Polly Baird, Lyrica Woodruff, Juliet Doherty and Michael McCormick. About 2 hours, 40 minutes. 

[Coming up in a subsequent post will be articles on the way the women of Degas’s era and the milieu of the Paris ballet are portrayed in the play, what inspired set designer Beowulf Boritt, and why this production played in preview until just ten days before it closed.  Other related articles on the Kennedy Center première of Little Dancer include “The Arts of Perseverance from an Iconic Ballerina,” a discussion of director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s work on the show by Sarah Kaufman; “Tiler Peck: A Dancer Takes Her Next Big Leap,” a profile of the New York City Ballet dancer who plays the young Marie, Degas’s model for the sculpture, by Peter Marks; “Making Art Sing Is Hardly a Walk in Park,” a consideration of how visual art may be “illustrated” by music by Anne Midgette; and “Flaherty and Ahrens: 30 Years in the Life,” a profile of the collaborators Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens by Nelson Pressley.  All four pieces appeared in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 19 October 2014.]

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