A New Life For Degas's Young Dancer

In 1997 curators at Paris's Musee d'Orsay asked the Ballet de l'Opera de Paris to restore the fragile tulle skirt on Edgar Degas's most famous work: "La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans." That was when the ballet's in-house historian, Martine Kahane, realized she knew nothing about Marie Van Goethem, the knobby-kneed teenager who had posed for the sculpture.

Kahane soon discovered the girl's dance career was short and tragic. "[It was] like something out of Emile Zola," says the opera's ballet master, Patrice Bart. Kahane recounted the tale to the ballet's director, Brigitte Lefevre, who was so moved she commissioned Bart to create a full-length ballet based on it. The three-act work, "La Petite Danseuse de Degas," runs through May 9 at Paris's Palais Garnier.

Van Goethem was the middle of three daughters of a widowed washerwoman who lived behind the then new Garnier opera house. Marie's mother pushed the young girl into the ballet's dance school in 1878, and by 1880 Marie was promoted to the corps de ballet. The next year Degas chose to depict Marie in wax, her hands clasped behind her arched back, her flat chest thrust forward in a defiant stance. (The Orsay has a bronze, cast in 1930.) Just two years later her mother offered her up as a prostitute and Marie was arrested for trying to pickpocket her gent. The opera promptly sacked her, and no one knows what happened to her after that.

Bart took Van Goethem's story and built upon it, creating three new characters: the ballet master who guides the girl by day, the gentleman caller who ravishes her by night and the "man in black" who represents both Degas and Van Goethem's destiny. Denis Levaillant wrote the abstract but melodic score, and the sets, by Ezio Toffolutti, are a modern take on Degas's paintings. Van Goethem may have disappeared more than a century ago, but her early life lives on in the theater where she learned to dance.

A New Life For Degas's Young Dancer | News