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Degas and the art of ballet

Edward Degas painting of ballet dancers on stage

As the French painter Edgar Degas understood, at the heart of classical ballet is a curious paradox. By its nature, ballet is technically challenging and physically demanding, but the essence of performance is the projection of the illusion of effortlessness.

For a ballerina there can be a sense of joy in performance, but among other physical demands, being “en pointe” means literally bearing all of her weight on the extended points of her toes. It can be very painful, but for the sake of the audience a ballerina must learn to stay in character completely.

Over several decades from the 1870s, Degas was a frequent observer of French ballet and its dancers. Such was his obsession that he created about 1,500 ballet-related drawings and paintings. Many of these were created in the style of impressionism, which did not pursue fine photo realism but used rougher techniques to convey a sense of visual texture, colour and movement. While many of Degas’ works project the graceful movement of dancers within the art form, he was well aware of the darker side of a dancer’s experience.

In exploring that darker side, Degas often took as his subject ballet rehearsals, rather than performances. In doing so, he could capture dancers as young women enduring pain before transforming into “effortless” and joyful performers. We can see Degas’s approach at work in his painting from 1889, “Danseuses sur la Scene” or “Dancers on the Stage.”

Degas and the paradox of performance

As we view the scene from the side of the stage (as Degas would do) we can see five dancers in various stages of rehearsal preparation. The dancer in the foreground appears to be grasping her right foot in some discomfort. The dancer at the right of the group appears to be stretching the muscles in her left leg, while the dancer at the upper right, with hands on hips, seems to be stretching her back. These are not romantic portrayals of effortlessness, but of considerable physical stress.

The two dancers in the centre of the frame have adopted classical ballet starting positions, with a characteristic turning of the feet and extension of the arms. Whatever pain these two dancers might be enduring is being disguised for the sake of the rehearsal ballet master – a distant, authoritarian figure who directs the dancers in their performance.

In a sense, we could speculate that the five dancers actually express the experience of one (or of every) dancer, beginning with the reality of physical pain and ending with the fantasy of graceful effortlessness.

The sad truth is that while other performing artists, such as opera singers, can perform into a ripe old age, dancers typically have a comparatively short career – often driven by traumatic injury or by simply being physically worn out by the chronic stresses of the art form. That observation is as true today as it was in 1889.

In more modern times, we may well gasp in exhilarated disbelief as the body of French etoile ballerina Sylvie Guillem appears to flow like water as she is passed from man to man in the slow pas de trois from “Manon.” Yes, her uncanny fluidity looks effortless. And yet it is not. She would certainly have experienced the paradox of pain and apparent effortlessness. The paradox was well understood by Edgar Degas, painting the whole ballet experience more than a century before.

Degas’ painting “Danseuses sur la Scene” can be viewed at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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