The Frick Collection, on Manhattan’s upper East Side, owns one painting by Degas, a ballet scene, from 1878-79, called The Rehearsal. The perspective—skewed on a diagonal—shows a rehearsal studio in the Paris Opéra. Several dancers, whom we see on a slant, have just unfurled their right legs in waist-high dévelopés. They’re in the middle ground, kind of falling out of the painting on our right. It’s not clear whether they are the only dancers practicing or the only practicing dancers visible. In the event, their faces are less distinctly rendered than their legs and tulle skirts; in fact, when one looks closely, their faces are almost clownishly featured.
However, in the foreground is another face. It belongs to the violinist who accompanies them, and it is carefully crafted. (Indeed, a preparatory drawing of the violinist is currently on exhibition in the Frick’s basement, as part of a traveling show of art from the Clark.) Seated, apparently, from his low position, he is turned away from the dancers for whom he plays. His legs are out of frame, but we see his body almost to the waist and both of his arms actively exercising his instrument. He’s a man sequestered in the contradictions of middle age, his beard gone gray yet his thick dark hair seemingly pomaded. He looks out of the picture plane meditatively toward the viewer’s right, as the dancers, facing the opposite direction, train their focus on a point outside the left edge of the painting (perhaps at a mirror that isn’t painted). Actually, in their gauzy practice dresses, intent on maintaining their one-legged balances, the dancers seem practically to be emanations from the head of the musician, which overlaps one of their skirts. His ponderous, opaque, black-suited figure and somewhat melancholy expression suggest that he is the sole character in the scene with an interior life, at least an interior life at that moment.
Recently, the Frick (well, the Frick’s Rika Burnham: author, dancer-choreographer, and head of education at the museum) conceived and realized several performances to “open out” this painting under the title “Degas Dances.” They took place for audiences of some 60-70 persons each night, seated in a half-circle against the wall of the golden rotunda that was built as the mansion’s Music Room, every seat with a clear view of the room’s small yet properly curtained and theatrically lit stage. To get to the Music Room, the audience filed through the Frick’s East Gallery, where, regarding the paintings, were a “Tableau Vivant” of a woman impersonating the painter Mary Cassatt (Olivia Powell), another woman impersonating Cassatt’s sister, Lydia (Katie Steiner), and a young girl, barefoot, in a leotard and raggedy tulle skirt, impersonating the stance of Degas’s sculpture of a young dancer (Mia Potter, a freshman at La Guardia High School of Music & Art). Mary Cassatt observed a painting while she canted her weight on a walking stick or tightly furled umbrella, as one sees her in Degas’s portrait of her from the back (a painting in the touring Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernism show, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). When the performance was about to begin, the impersonators entered the Music Room and the Cassatts took seats. The young girl—called “Aspiring Dancer Blanche Biot” in the program—stood, trembling with anticipation. On the floor, below the stage, were a violinist (Michael Roth, associate concertmaster of the New York City Ballet orchestra), a portable barre, and a ballet dancer in a leotard and tulle skirt, pointe shoes, and the black velvet choker ubiquitous among Degas dancers (Kristen Stevens, an alumna of the Norwegian National Ballet and several American companies). The program identifies her as Melina Darde. Momentarily, wearing a dapper, three-piece white suit—a nod to the vestments worn by Paris Opéra star and teacher Jules Perrot in Degas’s ballet art—another dancer entered the Music Room: the real Clinton Luckett (a ballet master with A.B.T.), whose height, handsomeness, and youth are so far from the physique of the aging Perrot Degas portrayed that one might call it nontraditional casting.
The Musician played, sensitively and with honeyed intonation, famous French period selections, many of them from ballets. The ballet dancer went through a long, slow warm-up at the barre and (I’m not sure how period this was) on the floor. Mr. Luckett-qua-Perrot, pulling a Stanley Williams, quietly directed the dancer’s barre exercises with small hand gestures. Aspiring Dancer Biot feverishly engaged Mr. Luckett-qua-Perrot in conversation—her most memorable line, “Can I be a ballerina?,” which gave the teacher a chance to point out how hard the ballet dancer was working and how long it takes to become a ballerina and how much dedication, how much one must give up, to dance professionally—that is, gently, he told her no, without saying it. Then M.lle Darde and M. Perrot appeared onstage, lit by impersonations of gaslighting, to perform variations from the Delibes Coppélia (“Prayer”) and Sylvia and two variations from the Bournonville repertoire, one from the Lumbye La Ventana and one from the Helsted-Paulli Napoli, with Mr. Roth’s Musician accompanying them. The tiny stage mercilessly confined the dancing; M.lle Darde was not wearing a period corset (which would have affected her line) and was wearing pointe shoes with 21st-century engineering. Furthermore, the dancers could not suppress their experience with a repertory that included many choreographers Degas could have never imagined and that had given them bodies as lean and strong as prize racehorses. Yet, despite these discrepancies from the authentic, the variations were danced with reverence and an obvious attempt to channel the period style for ballet dancing of Degas’s time. And the lighting (by Adam Macks) produced something of the magic-box effect characteristic of 19th-century proscenium theaters. By my lights, it was exquisite.
Following a brief intermission, the cast returned, this time with Ms Burnham and Emerson Kent Bowyer (the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Frick) in tow, to answer questions from the audience. The speakers all knew their stuff, and one left with provocative impressions. Mr. Bowyer, for instance, suggested that what Degas appreciated in ballet dancers was not so much the ideal effects of the ballet stage as the hard labor the dancers had to put in to get there. Ms Burnham mentioned that many professional ballet dancers don’t really like the way Degas represented those of his time—that he rarely caught the climax of a step, the reason for its existence, preferring, instead, to concentrate on interim movements leading up to or away from the step’s “picture.” (In The Rehearsal, the dancers’ supporting legs are turned out but their feet aren’t fully pointed, their elbows are dropped in their port de bras, and their hands, positioned in an old-school way, with the thumb touching the forefinger and the other fingers curled in, look like knobs.) And Mr. Luckett noted that by 1878-79, the period of the painting’s creation, the spirit of ballet had gravitated from Paris to St. Petersburg—i.e., that the Paris Opéra company Degas sketched and painted was, in fact, in decline.
The result of these history lessons was to remind us that Degas was not in love with the ballet or with ballet dancers the way balletomanes generally are: He was, instead, obsessed with the opportunities the ballet gave him to experiment with representations of motion, with unusual and/or extreme positions and poses as well as unusual perspectives, and with variations in texture and shape. What makes The Rehearsal unusual as an example of the ballet art of Degas is the extreme care the painter took in presenting the musician’s face and the suggestion of mood, emotion, and temperament in his entire presence. Of course, I speak as a layman. A painter would most likely look at the work quite differently: For a painter, surely, the creation of the space in the room, the rendering of light on surfaces, and the somewhat unsettling counterpoint between depth and flatness in the relation of the floor to the windows would be a primary interest.
Yet, in putting on “Degas Dances,” the Frick opened out the painting beyond the concerns of Degas, offering its audiences the suggestion of idealism in the dancing body–as derived from the statuary of ancient Greece and the Renaissance–and the tension in classical ballet between the look of living flesh and bone and the abstractions of Euclidean geometry such a physique reveals in the course of trained movement. We were asked to compare the painter’s concern with depth vs flatness against the balletic concern with energy vs. sculptural perfection. Although the script for the young aspirant of “Degas Dances” could use an overhaul, I thought the program successful in its rejection of the sentimentality that often varnishes the general public’s idea of Degas, as well as in its reminder that ballet goes way beyond hard work and athleticism: that its illusions and poetic effects are essential to what makes it more than a good subject for painting–to what makes it, in itself, an art.
Mindy Aloff teaches dance history and criticism at Barnard College. She is the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and the editor of the reader Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World by Agnes de Mille and of Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance. Her writing has appeared in many publications internationally, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. She is a past fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Woodrow Wilson Foundations and a former recipient of a Whiting Writers Award.