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On Stage: Little Dancer

A play with sensitive themes takes center stage

Synopsis

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

In words, music, and dance, Little Dancer tells the story of Marie van Goethem, a 14-year-old ballerina, and her relationship with the French artist Edgar Degas (pronounced ED-gar duh-GAH). Part fact and part fiction, the play is set against the backdrop of Paris and the Paris Opera Ballet of 135 years ago.

Marie’s mother and sisters balance on the edge of hunger and poverty. Still, Marie continues her ballet training with hopes of landing larger roles as she grows up. However, the Paris Opera Ballet has a dark, ugly secret: Some wealthy patrons prey on the young ballerinas, offering them money and support in exchange for their becoming the men’s mistresses.

A chance meeting between Marie and Degas launches an unlikely friendship. Marie models for the grumpy artist to pay a debt. Over time, he develops a grudging respect for her willfulness and defiance, as well as sympathy for her sad prospects.

Marie must make heartbreaking choices as she struggles to earn enough to feed herself and help her mother and sisters, as well as keep her place in the group of dancers known as the corps de ballet (kawr duh ba-LAY) even as the great artist shapes her into an enduring work of art.

Themes

Little Dancer: A New Musical
Poster for Little Dancer: A New Musical

According to author and playwright Doug Cooney, one of Little Dancer’s main messages echoes a plot twist from Frozen: “Don’t trust the prince,” Cooney says. The prince in the film seems sweet and loving, you may recall, but hidden behind his handsome face and chiseled chin is a needy, greedy jerk who wants Elsa and Anna’s realm for himself.

In other words, be wary of people pushing you to do what you’re not sure is right, no matter how charming and noble they might seem.

Little Dancer touches on some sensitive, even harsh themes about trust and betrayal. It is the story of a young girl struggling to live among people who take advantage of girls like her. The corps de ballet is made up of young dancers, many of them from poor families. But these “opera rats” are often surrounded by more powerful men, some of whom do not have the girls’ best interests at heart.

In the play, the central power imbalance is between these wealthy patrons of the ballet and the girls. Some patrons take advantage of the Marie’s sisters and the other girls and become manipulative and cruel in their desire for sex. “They look over the girls as if they were merchandise,” Cooney says. This imbalance of power is a central theme in Little Dancer.

We see imbalances of power at work in our lives on a regular basis, Cooney points out. Some examples:

  • a worker afraid to call in sick for fear the boss will fire him;
  • an athlete deciding to compete with a serious injury because he or she does not want to disappoint the coach;
  • a sweetheart being charmed by her older boyfriend to do what she isn’t sure she wants to do.

We often make choices based on our fears of what someone—people we love, respect, need, or are afraid of—will do or say if we don’t do what they want. Sometimes it is for our own good; but sometimes it is for no one’s good but theirs. We are especially vulnerable to such pressures when we are young, when we are lonely and scared, when we are poor.

Honoring our own opinions and learning to trust our instincts are important skills to learn and practice as we grow up. They help us make better choices. They give us the strength to protect ourselves and each other in a world where some people use their power in self-serving ways.

But when we feel overwhelmed by a situation and aren’t sure what to do, there are also organizations that can help.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline:
1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network):
1-800-656-HOPE. (1-800-656-4673)

Watch For, Think About

Themes are ideas that show up repeatedly in a story or play. By piecing together details we can identify what the story wants to share, whether it is stated openly or hidden between the lines.

Here are some questions about Little Dancer to guide you in thinking about themes in the play.

  • What do you find beautiful in the play? What do you find ugly?
  • Which characters do you admire? Why do you like them?
  • Which characters do you not trust? Why don’t you trust them?
  • What are Marie’s various motives—her reasons for doing what she does?
  • What motivates Degas?
  • Pick other characters and consider their motivations.
  • What are instances when characters demonstrate care for each other without asking—or demanding—favors in return?
  • Ask yourself: How do you decide whether or to trust another person? How do you behave to show others they can trust you?

The Sculpture

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881
Edgar Degas: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881.
Pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base.
Overall without base: 38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in, weight: 49 lb.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1999.80.28

The artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917) sculpted Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in wax and other materials between 1878 and 1881. It was first exhibited in Paris at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition.

Critics despised the sculpture from the start, describing the figure as “repulsive,” “vicious,” and “a threat to society.” It was a naturalistic portrayal of a young girl, a poor “opera rat,” when the art world wanted gorgeous goddesses and historical heroines. It showed the rich and wealthy of Paris an aspect of their society they would rather pretend did not exist.

Degas never again exhibited the statue. It was only rediscovered in his studio following his death in 1917. It has since been cast in bronze, and copies of it exist in art museums around the world.

Little Dancer is now considered one of Degas’s finest works.

Credits

Writers

Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Producer

Reviewers

Doug Cooney
Subject Matter Expert

Sources

“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” Natural Gallery of Art. (n.d.). Web. 29 Sept. 2014. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight110292.html

Tiler Peck as Little Dancer for The Kennedy Center. Photographed by Matt Karas in Brooklyn on June 12, 2014. © 2014 Matt Karas - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED - Rights granted to The Kennedy Center for use in marketing and promotion of Little Dancer. No third party uses allowed without written permission from Matthew Karas.

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