As a little girl and ballet student, the iconic paintings of ballet dancers in unguarded moments backstage were as familiar to me as my posters of teen idol Bobby Sherman. Of course, not many readers will remember Bobby Sherman, while Degas’ paintings of dancers endure. To my young eyes, the dancers in the paintings were the epitome of grace and beauty and therefore had to be living exotic and romantic lives. Kathryn Wagner, in her first novel, Dancing for Degas, satisfies every little ballerina’s curiosity by going beyond the canvas into the lives of Degas’ models.
Dancing for Degas is a fictionalized account of a young woman, Alexandrie, from a desperately poor farm family who goes to Paris to be a ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet company is, however, an elegant front for a high-class brothel. In Wagner’s story, wealthy patrons of the ballet – men of money and power – gain backstage access, including entrance to post-performance parties where alliances between the dancers and the patrons were forged. If a ballerina remained a virgin, she could aspire to be made a mistress of a patron. If she carelessly lost her virginity and failed to snag an exclusive arrangement, at age 25 the dancer was forced to become a prostitute.
Alexandrie is fascinated by Degas and his constant sketching at the ballet. She catches the eye of Degas and becomes one of his primary models for his series of dancer paintings. Alexandrie is archetype strong and intelligent female trapped in a male-dominated world. She finds Degas mercurial and mysterious. He is one of the few men in the ballerina’s circle who appreciates her intelligence. At heart, Dancing with Degas is less about the painter or the ballerinas and more of a girl-meets-boy love story. It’s a fun read, but should only be a starting point for a closer look into the life of the Paris Opera Ballet and the paintings of Degas. The real story is even more fascination.
Le Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris was established in 1661 by French King Louis XIV – who actually danced with the ballet from time to time. In Degas’ day, the Ballet was an important part of the cultural life in Paris. It is true that many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet came from poor, working class families. Degas himself wrote, “It is among the common people that you find grace.” [i]
The dancers began training with the Opera at the age of 6, unlike Alexandrie who came as a teenager. These Opera “petit rats” trained under the stern hand of the Ballet Master. The Paris Opera Ballet was where “some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the faries, nymphs and queens of the stage.” [ii]
But, was the ballet a front for a brothel? It was true that wealthy male patrons – called abonnes — had unusual access to the dancers. If you look closely at some of the paintings, you can see these men in the background. The abonnes often became “protectors” of the dancers. The wealthy abonnes “lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing” rooms.”[iii]
Was Degas an abonnes? Actually, Degas had to enlist the help of influential friends to gain backstage access to the ballerinas. However, he did become an abonne later in his life.[iv] At one point in his fascination with the ballet, Degas focused his attention on the abonnes. He did some illustrations for a writer’s satirical book about “the often sordid affairs of young dancers, their mothers and the abonnés” but the book was never published.
Once he gained access to classrooms and behind stage, Degas did more than 1500 pieces of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers. Over half were of dancers backstage or at rehearsal in unguarded poses and at rest. He focused on the natural cycle of work and rest. He admired the athleticism and controlled movement of the dancers and sought to depict the dancers’ potential movement, held in tension.[v]
In 1875, after the original Paris opera house burned, the Palais Garnier, became the new home of the ballet. Here, Degas regularly sketched the dancers. One ballerina later recalled that he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.”[vi]
Sometimes Degas made “notes on his drawings, criticizing a dancer’s balance, or the placement of a leg. On one sketch he jotted down a teacher’s comment about a student’s awkwardness: ‘She looks like a dog pissing.'” [vii]
But Degas made even more drawings in his studio. He paid the young ballet students (called “petit rats“) and more experienced ballerinas to pose. Once, an inspector from the police morals unit came to the studio and demanded to know “why so many little girls were coming and going.” [viii]
In Dancing for Degas, the painter was moody and prone to anger. But, the real Degas enjoyed spending time with the dancers, who shared their gossip with the painter as they posed. [ix] As in Wagner’s book, Degas’ brother, Achille did have an affair with a ballerina. But, there is no evidence, though, that Degas had such an affair. He did have women friends, including women artist like Mary Cassatt, but some considered him a misogynist. As portrayed by Wagner, Degas never married because he believed a marriage would interfere with his work.
Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer” created particular controversy. His model was fourteen-year old ballet student named Marie van Goethem. Marie and her three sisters were training to become ballerinas. Marie rose fast in the ballet; she progressed from a petit rat to the corps de ballet by the time she was fifteen, just after Degas completed the sculpture. Unfortunately for Marie, she was fired from the ballet a couple of years later for excessive absences. Marie’s mother, a widow, was a laundress and is said to have prostituted her daughters. A newspaper article in 1882 claimed that Marie was a regular at disreputable cafes. Then, Marie faded from site, and we don’t know what eventually happened to her.[x]
The Paris Opera Ballet is still going strong – and quite reputable. Ballerinas still train at the Opera’s ballet school beginning at the age of sixteen. At their website, you can take a virtual tour of the Palais Garnier, where the Degas roamed the halls observing the dancers. Paris Opera Ballet: http://www.operadeparis.fr/cns11/live/onp/L_Opera/L_Opera_de_Paris/histoire_de_l_Opera.php?lang=en