'Little Dancer' Musical Imagines The Story Behind Degas' Mysterious Muse Ballerina Marie Van Goethem started modeling for Edgar Degas around 1878 and inspired his statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. But history lost track of her after she left the Paris Opera.

'Little Dancer' Musical Imagines The Story Behind Degas' Mysterious Muse

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This is the story of a century-old teenager. She's a statue by Edgar Degas. The statue is called Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, which is just what she is. She's on display at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. Nearby, the dancer has gone on stage in a way. This weekend, the Kennedy Center opens a show inspired by the sculpture. NPR News has team coverage of this cultural event, beginning with NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg at that statue.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I took two 14-year-old ballet students to the museum. They saw themselves in Degas' sculpture. Looking at her, they stand as she does - fourth position, weight on left leg, right leg forward, foot turned out to the right. They recognize her tutu, her shoes, her perfect posture.

BRITTANY YERVOLI: It looks like she's standing in rehearsal.

STAMBERG: Brittany Yervoli and Ava Durant notice the young girl's hands clasped firmly behind her back.

AVA DURANT: Maybe showing respect, but also just sort of the way that we're supposed to stand in class.

STAMBERG: Charming, entrancing even. Yet the French had a less flattering nickname for the Paris Opera Ballet corps.

ALISON LUCHS: They called the students rats. They were little. They were thin. They scampered. They came in from the streets.

STAMBERG: Curator Alison Luchs sees determination in the young ballerina's face. One writer called her Miss Bossy Pants. Conservator Shelley Sturman sees a bit of mystery.

SHELLEY STURMAN: Her eyes are half-closed. Her head is tilted. She's - she's ready to rise above that rat-of-the-opera mystique.

STAMBERG: Edgar Degas made many sculptures. Little Dancer is the only one he ever exhibited.

STURMAN: And he worked on it for years.

STAMBERG: Dozens of drawings before he began to sculpt with clay and beeswax, shaping and reshaping this original. Bronze casts were made after Degas' death. National Gallery X-rays show he stabilized the 39-inch figure with lead pipe wrapped in rope, used wire for her arms.

STURMAN: And to make them stiffer and firmer, he actually put in old paintbrushes.

STAMBERG: So he stuffed her with junk from his studio.

STURMAN: Anything he had in his studio, exactly.

STAMBERG: To tilt her head, he put a spring coil - maybe from a chair or mattress - inside her neck.

STURMAN: And then finally, he dressed her.

STAMBERG: Totally unconventional. A real cotton bodice, waxed so it looks bronzy; a real tutu, a real silk ribbon tied around her braid made of real human hair - blonde. Oh, and the shoes - real linen slippers, waxed...

STURMAN: And they're pink.

STAMBERG: And critics' reaction in 1881...

STURMAN: A lot of them thought it was awful. They were stunned by the realism. They were used to seeing sculptures of women in marble and bronze.

STAMBERG: Goddesses. Not a flat-chested, skinny, coltish adolescent, not Marie Van Goethem.

STURMAN: We know that because it's written on a Degas drawing. Parents came from Belgium. The father was a tailor. The mother was a laundress.

STAMBERG: Marie started modeling for Degas around 1878. Curator Alison Luchs says her dance career ended four years later.

LUCHS: She was dismissed from the ballet. The implication is that she was missing rehearsals or getting something wrong. And she disappears; we don't know what became of her.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) I see her concentration, her fierce desire to shine.

STAMBERG: The new musical "Little Dancer" imagines Marie's life. Jeff Lunden has that story.


ACTRESS: (As character, singing) With the rain still coming down.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Lynn Ahrens, the author of "Little Dancer," the show opening at the Kennedy Center, says she got the idea for it one day when she stood in front of a bronze replica of the statue at the Clark Institute in Massachusetts. She began to wonder about the story behind it, so Ahrens did some research on Degas and Marie.

LYNN AHRENS: I began to see a story emerging about an artist who was beginning to go blind, who was frightened that he was losing his power to paint. And into his life, somehow, walks a little girl, who inspires him, in some way, because she is such an urchin, such a spirit and a stubborn soul. And he begins to sketch her and suddenly decides that he wants to sculpt.

LUNDEN: Ahrens and her collaborator, composer Stephen Flaherty, have created a musical that's both historically informed and highly speculative.


UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE: (Singing) See the ballet.

LUNDEN: In a Manhattan rehearsal studio, many of Degas's most famous paintings and sketches are taped to the wall - ballerinas slumping in exhaustion, rich men in black hats checking out the girls, the absinthe drinkers. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman has put them all on stage, but says the heart of "Little Dancer" is the story of a prickly artist finding his equally prickly young muse in one of those ballet rats.

SUSAN STROMAN: You want to believe that she had language and she, you know, was like an Artful Dodger almost. And so that's what we have created, in essence.


LUNDEN: New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck plays young Marie as a street urchin - a very talented street urchin, but one who has no qualms about picking people's pockets, including Monsieur Degas's, to get money for pointe shoes.

TILER PECK: What I see her as is just, like, a survivor. She does anything to make her ends meet. You know, there's no hope for her at home. She goes home, and her mom's drunk all the time. Her mom's asking her for her money. And I feel like the ballet is the one sort of happy hope that she has in her life.

LUNDEN: She's caught in between many things, says composer Stephen Flaherty. Poverty and art and...

STEPHEN FLAHERTY: She's not a child. She's not an adult. She's sort of in between, in the cracks, and that's one of the things that we really wanted to capture.

LUNDEN: And it's that in between-ness that attracts Degas, as played by Boyd Gaines.


BOYD GAINES: (As Edgar Degas, singing) In between an urchin and an angel, in between inquisitive and rude.

LUNDEN: While the musical comes up with a reason Marie is dismissed from the Paris Opera, it doesn't exactly say what happened to her afterwards. There's a dream ballet, which offers a variety of possible paths, and the character of older Marie quite literally haunts the show. Director Susan Stroman.

STROMAN: By having an adult Marie and a young Marie, we're saying that she survived. And that's a good thing. And that's what we would hope for.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden with Susan Stamberg.


ENSEMBLE: (Singing) See the ballet.

INSKEEP: The original "Little Dancer" is at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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