Degas Today: Six Reflections by Maida Withers

A leader in the area of dance and technology, Maida Withers is the founder and artistic director of Dance Construction Company of Washington, D.C., a professor in the department of theatre and dance at The George Washington University, and member of Washington Project for the Arts. This Friday, October 21, Artisphere presents DANCE:FILMS by MAIDA WITHERS, exploring the intersection of dance, film, new media, and performance (click the event link to watch trailers). In anticipation, Withers visited the Degas exhibition and shares her responses to the iconic “painter of dancers” in this guest post. 

(left) Maida Withers. Courtesy of the artist. (right) Edgar Degas, Two Studies of a Ballet Dancer, c. 1873. Brush and brown ink, heightened with white, on pink paper, now faded, 16 1/16 x 11 1/16 in.The Pierpont Morgan Library, Bequest of John S. Thacher

Visiting the Degas’s Dancers at the Barre exhibition at The Phillips Collection, you realize the comprehensive, lifetime interest and commitment of Degas to dance, a passion I share as a choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker.  In reflection, I had the following thoughts and feelings after visiting the exhibition:

1. Degas images are still the universal icons for dance – ballet and beyond. Live performance can have a strong impression for the viewing audience, but nothing quite parallel to the visual art image that can be viewed and studied over and over again. The closest modern dance has come to an icon, perhaps, is Martha Graham, but there is no singular Graham image comparable in our memory to that of Degas and the ballet.

2. Recognition of our changing views about the “dancer’s body.” Certainly there is more diversity in the look of dancers today partly due to the change in training and the widening range of roles and styles the dancer must be able to perform.

3.  Reading about multiple revisions by Degas in creating his work, I was reminded of our access to technology that makes it almost instantly possible for us to revise and revisit ideas. In my own work, I am able to combine my choreography in real time as visual artists add interactive cyber worlds, or not, and document my work on film/video for review and investigation in building the performance work.

4. For Degas ballet was in essence the art of dance for women. While the female dancer continues in importance, there has been a transformation of the role of men in dance that allows for expansion of danceable ideas and new movement vocabularies. My own work always has as many or more men dancing to give the balance of both being represented and support each other.

5. As a choreographer, the magic and power of the rehearsal and creation process often seems far removed from the experience of the audience.  Degas was intent on sharing the interior landscape of dancers in situations other than on stage. In my own work I have tried many ways to expose audiences to the process of creating and performing dance that reflects an insider’s view. Today this leads to events and performances in “found” spaces with scripts and scores that allow for improvisation and spontaneous discovery and on-the-spot choreography.

6. Degas clearly illustrates the power of dance as a subject for the visual arts then and now. My own work as a filmmaker attempts to create something that only exists on film, as Degas’s work existed in sculpture, painting, pastel.  Dance on film allows the choreographer/filmmaker to create a world of dance that does not exist in reality except on film. The film, like the painting or pastel, can continue to have influence long after the performance or the career of the dancer has ended.

Maida Withers, choreographer, dancer, filmmaker

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