There are a few things I’ll never forget from ballet class. Like the fact I was always at the back (tall girls don’t get to grace the first row), and the leotards (pink, blue and – cruelly- grasshopper green). There was the learning how to style a perfect bun (two nets, not one, and particular pin application), and how to tie the slippers just right. I recall pain and subtle clock-watching, but also elation when performing on stage and feeling like your body pretty much rocked if it was seriously OK with bending this way and extending that.
When we were ready, we got to go en pointe. Pointe shoes let ballet dancers be on the tips of their toes (en pointe) for extended periods of time. They have two structural features to let that happen: the ‘box’ is a hard enclosure in the front of the shoe that encases and supports the dancer’s toes (the end is flattened for the dancer to balance on); the ‘shank’ is a piece of rigid material that stiffens the sole to provide support for the arch of the foot en pointe. Pointe work is all about putting across an impression of weightlessness and extreme elegance, but it also gets pretty painful, people. There’s blood and sometimes tears. Which is why last week’s new Guinness World Record for the Most Ballerinas En Point at One Time (230 of them, for just over a minute) is huge.
I’m frankly thrilled we have an excuse to put on our dancing shoes and sashay on over to Edgar Degas, whose fascination with the ballet fetched up some of our most fantasy-filled artworks. Born in Paris to a wealthy family, at first it looked like Degas (1834 – 1917) might become an academic painter, in the Ingres mould. But by the late 1860s he’d started to develop a deceptively casual kind of composition (probably influenced by Manet, possibly by Whistler, and certainly by snapshot photography). He coupled this with an inclination to modern subject matter. His first pictures of dancers were painted around 1873, and from then on ballet girls (as well as laundresses, models dressing and bathing, and cabaret singers) became his principal subject in 100s of works.
Both The Dance Lesson (c. 1879) and Before the Ballet (1890/1892) reveal the artist’s interest not in the perfected, polished performance of the ballet, but rather in its more casual, candid qualities as captured in behind-the-scenes snaps. Both are done in striking and unusual horizontal format: the shape gives a sense of space, enhanced by the dancers being cropped by the edges of the canvas and placed off center. These are fresher than photos for the sense on an instant they bring.
This large and ambitious work is called Four Dancers, c. 1899 and exists in various versions. Notice how even though Degas is not big on detail, he does define the arms, necks and heads of the dancers in this case, perhaps responding to or referencing the dancers’ concern with line and shape. The off-stage performers seem to have been filtered through the theater lights and come over in a charming complimentary colour scheme of red-orange and green. And the best bit about going to the ballet with Degas? There is never even an inkling of the toll it takes to be on tippy toes.