Degas thought of himself as a painter of movement. As lovely as his paintings are, his dancers are frozen in their poses, beautiful bugs in amber. What if we could go back in time to watch a performance?
When motion pictures were invented, the camera was focused on anything that moved – trains, people, horses, and yes, dancers. There are no movies of ballet dancers during the late 19th century, but there are a precious few of ballet during the early 20th (close enough). With film, a famous dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet could be watched anywhere over the globe, or, a century later, delight us over the internet.
La Sylphide solo 1903
Pas de Deux 1902
Dance exercises at the barre 1920
And this beguiling couple….
Geltzer & Tikhomirov, husband and wife in the Bolshoi Ballet – Pas de Deux
This last performance reminds that, aside from the dance master, there are no male dancers in Degas’s ballet scenes. This recalls Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti, in which there are few, if any, men depicted. Was Degas, like Gauguin, creating his own private paradise?
Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant
At the Phillips’s 90th Birthday Bash, young dancers from the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C. stretched and practiced at the barre in the galleries, bringing Degas’s paintings to life.
Sadly, the video clips Amanda selected to accompany this post are no longer available for viewing on YouTube. But you can view the gorgeous trailer for La Danse below.
While a 158 minute-long documentary film about dance may not sound riveting, believe me, Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse had me from start to finish. The 2009 film paints a behind-the-scenes portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet as it prepares for seven ballets and gives viewers a glimpse of everything that happens backstage: from the grueling, exacting rehearsals to what’s on the menu in the ballet’s dining hall.
Although there are tutus and pink slippers a-plenty in this film, my absolute favorite part was watching the rehearsals for choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Genus, an avant-garde ballet that was inspired by Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. The film allows us to see the production in rehearsal and then we see get to the final product. Although I have only seen several minutes of this ballet, I’m absolutely obsessed: the costuming reminds me of moth wings or the textiles from Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 collection Plato’s Atlantis (McQueen’s collection was also inspired by On the Origins of Species), the music by Joby Talbot and Deru is eerie but beautiful, and the dance moves are downright biomorphic, bringing to mind insects, the snaky reptilian swoop of swan’s necks, and even wiggly protozoa in a petri dish.
La Danse is screening in the museum auditorium on Saturday, December 17, at 2 pm, included in exhibition admission. Don’t miss it!
Amanda Jiron-Murphy, In-Gallery Interpretation and Public Programs Coordinator