MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So today's show has been all about being in the trenches, right? And when you think about that, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn't ballet. But ask any prima ballerina and she will tell you this kind of dance is tough, often excruciating work. And that toiling comes through in a new exhibition at the Philips Collection, here in D.C. NPR's Susan Stamberg takes us inside the show and inside the life of the painter who worked so hard to capture dancers on canvas.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
So many little girls grow up with Degas reproductions in their bedrooms. Framed painted images of ballerinas limbering up before a performance. The Philips has the real thing, original paintings, plus in the last gallery, two real mirrors covering opposite walls and a real ballet barre, a long wooden pole mounted at hip height along one mirror. I took some dancers to look at the exhibition but didn't expect them to become the show.
MS. SUSAN STAMBERG
You walked over to the barre, you put your leg up and you looked at yourself in the other mirror. You can't just walk past it.
MS. MORGAN ROSE
Now, I see a ballet barre and I have to do something. It's kind of an addiction.
Morgan Rose is a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet. She sees herself in the painting that's the focus of this show, Degas "Dancers at the Barre."
Every day begins at the barre, stretching, slowly moving your body, warming yourself up for the day.
MR. SEPTIME WEBRE
You walk into the studio, the studio's a temple.
Septime Webre, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of Washington Ballet.
In the morning, the sunlight is casting a shadow on the studio floor and one walks up to the barre and just begins to test out the stretches. Put your leg on the barre and stretch forward. The big muscles, the hamstrings, the inner thigh muscles need to be stretched. It's something one does for themselves to prepare.
The same stretches they learn at age 6 repeated hundreds of times a day to the end of their dancing days, at age 35 or 40. degas made some 1,500 paintings, pastels and drawings of dancers, more than any other artist. Eliza Rathbone, who curated the Philips show finds a connection between the dancers' repetitions and the work of Degas.
MS. ELIZA RATHBONE
You have to draw and draw just like a dancer practices, you know, again and again and again the same steps, the same moves, the same positions in order to achieve that beautiful grace and fluidity and mastery of their art.
Merce Cunningham always said dancers shouldn't be dancers if they don't love the dailiness of it.
Again, Washington Ballet artistic director, Septime Webre.
It's that dailiness that Degas captured and it's the dailiness that's in the spirit of his return to their subjects.
In studios, in rehearsal halls, backstage, in dressing rooms, Degas drew the dancers. He was a witty, brilliant conversationalist according to scholars. Never married and was reclusive. Curious to think of him getting that insider's access to the ballerinas but he was not the only one. in the 19th century subscribers to the Paris Opera, the ballet was part of the opera then, could get similar backstage views. Again, curator Eliza Rathbone.
A subscriber would have special access to seeing the dancers before or after a performance.
The dancers, lower and middle class women, welcomed such visitors. Gentleman of means might become patrons or what they called special friends. Degas rarely showed ballerinas in performance. Instead they stretch at barres or pull up a stocking or bend to adjust a satin toe shoe ribbon. In their pretty tutus and sashes they are all on their way to making art. That's the subject of Degas' obsession.
What it takes to do what we see, what we see is such a small part of a dancer's whole life and he was interested showing life, you know, real life.
He loved those hard-working dancers. He once said they had sewn up his heart in a bag of pink satin, a bit worn like their dancing slippers. Starting around 1884 Degas kept revising "Dancers At The Barre," changing the position of arm here, a leg or head there. using an infrared camera, Elizabeth Steele, head of conservation at the Philips, discovered just how many changes the artist made.
MS. ELIZABETH STEELE
There are eight different positions of the legs of these dancers.
On the same canvas?
On the same canvas.
So he just kept fussing with it and changing.
Obsessively, obsessively reworking the picture.
But it's funny that the final choice or where he stopped would've been, what to me looks like a very awkward standing leg.
No one can possibly stand like that. It's impossible.
But even the leg is growing out from the wrong part of her body.
It's total invention by the end. It has nothing to do with working from the model anymore. He's searching for this strong feeling of stretching and this is how it comes out.
Looking at the work as a dancer, not an art expert, ballerina Morgan Rose finds another awkward patch in the painting.
With the foot on the left dancer, it looks like it's a little bit flexed in my opinion. You know, you want that beautiful line at the end of the foot to always curve in the direction of the pointed foot. Her foot is not quite as pointed as I would like.
But you know, it's art not life. the art of becoming beautiful, an infinite vocabulary of motion that fascinated the painter and showing what it takes, Degas still created an ethereal world of lovely illusions that all that hard work is designed to produce.
Have you had days, you have to of, you've been at this a while, when you just think, no not that barre again?
Sometimes, yes, absolutely. I think it's more your body not wanting to move. You get stiff, you get sore, you're training your muscles in ways that they're not used to being trained.
Whether or not Degas had any Oh, no moments -- he was a perfectionist, never satisfied. He worked on "Dancers At The Barre" on and off for some 20 years. The painting was still in his studio when he died in 1917 at the age of 83. Now, it's at the Phillips Collection in Washington until early January along with other images from this behind the scenes look at dance. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
You can see images from the Phillips exhibit on our website. That's metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza, Sabri Ben-Achour, Jonathan Wilson, Lauren Landau and Peter Domingos along with NPR's Susan Stamberg. Jim Asendio is our news director. Our managing producer is Tara Boyle. Jonna McKone, Lauren Landau, Peter Domingos and Heather Taylor produce "Door To Door." Thanks as always to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts'' and our "Door To Door" theme, "No Girl," are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see a list of all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org.
And while you're there, you can listen to complete episodes by clicking the podcast link. You can find us on Twitter, you can like us on Facebook and you can check out free transcripts of all the stories you heard on the show. We hope you can join us next week when we'll get ready for Thanksgiving feast with a show about moderation. We'll hear how some law firms are trying to create a little work-life balance for D.C.'s workaholics' attorneys. We'll learn why some local priests are praying for us to be better drivers and we'll check out a new theatrical production where the audience plays moderators and decides how the performance.
There are up to nine objects the audience can nominate to vote out and it is really up to them whether they vote one, whether they vote out none and we have contingency plans for all of those scenarios.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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