Backstage Glamour: A Ballerina’s Perspective on Degas

This week, October 12-16, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with two mixed programs each featuring Balanchine’s Diamonds. In honor of the engagement, principal dancer Heather Ogden shares her thoughts on Degas in this guest post.

(left) Heather Ogden. (right) Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, c. 1885–91. Oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 34 5/8 in. Yale University Art Gallery. Gift of Duncan Phillips, B.A. 1908.

This past summer I took a trip to Paris with my husband and one of the many things we saw was a Degas exhibit.  As soon as we arrived at the museum I bee-lined to the Degas section because I knew I would love it.  I have always admired the paintings of Degas because the subject of his paintings is most often about my first love . . . ballet.

Degas, known as the painter of dancing girls, painted some in the simplest moments of our art form. Whether depicting a dancer stretching on the barre, talking to another dancer, or adjusting a pointe shoe, his art mostly shows the things that go on behind the scenes.  I guess the modern term for this would be that Degas had a backstage pass to the ballet.

What I like is that he was able to share what he saw in the wings or backstage in a way that made things look very sophisticated and glamorous. Being a dancer is a job that requires a lot of hard work and sweat, and it’s not always beautiful in the beginning when you start learning a ballet. The goal is to make our movements look easy on stage and never let the audience know that you are working so hard. We try to look glamorous to the audience, and I think Degas understood that and portrayed his dancers in that way even in the backstage scenes.

I read that Degas loved to experiment and never considered any of his work finished. He shared that mentality with the majority of dancers as well. As dancers we hope always to evolve and improve. We are constantly striving for perfection, while never really obtaining it.

Heather Ogden, principal dancer, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet

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