Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Excerpt from Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly


She is known world-wide as The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the only sculpture created by the French artist, Edgar Degas. She stands, defiantly, in ballet's fourth position, jutting her chin out at her audience, as if arrogantly telling her viewers to stand clear. Leave her alone. But since her unveiling in Paris towards the end of the 19th century, many instead have wanted a close up view of the statuette in order to understand the sitter's aura of smug self-possession. It is often – and widely – said that she is arrogant. A spoiled brat. But a close examination of the life of Marie Van Goethem, the real-life ballerina who posed for Degas, reveals that the dancer was spoiled alright – victimized by poverty and the sexual exploitation that ran rampant through her profession. When Marie was a young dancer at the Paris Opéra, the legendary theatre was known as the Brothel of France. Evidence shows that she was a gutter sylph who had tried to make good. But circumstances were strongly against her. Degas, it seems, pitied her. In rendering her as thin and anything but glamorous, he was, in his way, championing her cause. He immortalized her suffering. That look on her face is the look of a girl determined to fight off all predators. Unfortunately, for Marie it was a losing battle. This is her story:
 
The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas.

The life of the ballet girl was indeed harsh, and the choices she had to make just to survive sometimes backfired on her and her family members, who had rested all their hopes for success on her malnourished shoulders. An 1859 article published in London Society entitled “The Ballet Girls of Paris” played up the flip side of the pleasure-seeking fantasy for those ballerinas who gambled with their bodies and lost, saying that they were to be found “in hospitals, in streets begging, or worse, in asylums, in gaols, at the solemn little Morgue by the banks of the Seine—very rarely that we do not hear of them in places of misery, in the somber realms of wretchedness. Their lives are frail and brittle, and break often under their burdens.”

Marie van Goethem was one of those girls.

She is better known as The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the insolent-looking ballerina sculpted by Edgar Degas (1834–1917) for a two-thirds life-size creation whose debut took place in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. She was, at the time of the statuette’s unveiling, a member of the corps de ballet, one of 140 dancers employed by the Opéra. She had just been promoted the year before after two years in the dance conservatory, which she had joined in 1878, at the age of twelve. She was not yet a full-fledged ballerina; she was, like many members of the corps, a girl whose future would be determined by her past.

Research bordering on detective work executed in the 1990s by Martine Kahane, an authority on the history of the Paris Opéra, reveals that Marie was born into precarious circumstances that appear to have scarred her for life. Born June 7, 1865, Marie was the middle daughter of three girls of Belgium-born parents who had relocated to Paris between 1861 and 1862, perhaps in search of a better life. The oldest girl was Antoinette, born 1861 in Brussels, and the youngest was Louise Joséphine (also called Charlotte), who was born in Paris in 1870 and who died there in 1945. Kahane says that “the three sisters’ childhood [took] place in a geographic and social environment that exert[ed] a heavy toll. The young girls, probably streetwise, spent more time in the street than in the dark and joyless hovels that make up the district’s poor dwellings. The Bréda district, Marie’s birthplace, was one of the poorest, most squalid locations for Paris prostitution.”

The sisters’ father was said to be a tailor, and their mother a laundress, who was also a known prostitute; once in Paris, the family moved through a rapid series of apartments, all located in the 9th arrondissement: “The frequent changes in residence are an indication of poverty, of the inability to pay rent on time but could also be considered an indication of vagrancy bordering on prostitution.” The family’s financial situation no doubt worsened after Antoine van Goethem died, around 1870, leaving his wife to raise the three girls on her own, seemingly without a profession; 1870 also marked the start of the Franco-Prussian War, which introduced tremendous privations to Paris, including starvation. It was a desperate time in the history of the city, and the semi-criminal van Goethem family was obviously doing all it could to survive.

They lived close to Pigalle and the red-light district but also within walking distance of artists’ studios such as that belonging to Degas, who kept lodgings on the lower slopes of Montmartre. The artist knew the van Goethems, and as early as 1873, when the family lived on the boulevard de Clichy, Degas appears already to have started sketching the children, each of whom were students at the École de Danse, the Paris Opéra dance school. A notebook dating from around 1874 makes a reference to “Antoinette Vangutten—aged 12,” suggesting the older sister might have sat for some of his earlier dance paintings. But it was Marie who appears to have posed more frequently for the artist, both clothed and nude, affording Degas an opportunity to study her anatomy from every angle and at close hand. Degas was a committed studio artist, often working from live models paid between six and ten francs for a four-hour sitting at a time when a pound of meat cost a franc.

Marie van Goethem
Degas was classically trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as well as in Naples, Florence, and Rome, where his banker father, a prominent member of Second Empire society who later in life lost all his money, had supported his son in furthering his art studies. But Degas was a pioneering modernist. In his paintings, he slyly alluded to the backstage violence of the ballet through images of dancers yawning, drooping, or staring catatonically into space. The other threat, that of the ever-present abonné, the man who, single-handedly, could determine a dancer’s destiny, Degas rendered almost satirically, using the presence of small-figure dark-suited men hovering in a picture’s background: storm clouds who at any minute might thunder down on the petal-like tulle of his dancers’ tutus. When Degas came to make the statue of Marie, modeling it by hand from wax during a two-year period—the only sculpture he exhibited in his lifetime—he took pains to capture the young dancer’s psychological makeup, presenting her idiosyncratically in ballet’s relaxed fourth position, with most of the weight falling onto the back leg. Her bony legs are widely turned out, and her thin arms are pulled back with hands tightly clasped. Her pointy chin is thrust high, and her eyes are semi-closed, as if lost in a dream, if not interminable boredom. She wears a real tarlatan tutu such as she might have worn to the studio for practice, and there is a ribbon in her plaited hair. She looks defiant if not impudent; she is not at all one of those fantastical creatures of the ballet stage but a girl who looks half-starved and brutalized by life and her profession.

This lack of conformity to classical precepts of beauty shocked many who first laid eyes on the meter-high, partly colored and clothed sculpture of a young ballet student to which Degas had added real hair; the general consensus was that she was a grotesque: “I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion ugliness,” declared an outraged Elie de Mont in La Civilisation. “This opera rat has something about her of the monkey, the shrimp, the runt. Any smaller and one would be tempted to enclose her in a jar of alcohol.” Perhaps worse than ugly, the young dancer was seen as immoral, embodying all the vice of both her class and profession. The critic Paul Mantz, writing in Le Temps, stated that in choosing this less-than-desirable-girl as his model, Degas had “picked a flower of precocious depravity from the espaliers of the theater.” For the art historian and collector Charles Ephrussi, who owned some of Degas’s ballet paintings, the figure represented “the Opéra rat in her modern form, learning her craft with all her disposition and stock of bad instincts and licentious inclinations.” The French literary critic Henri Trianon likened her to a “young monster” that belonged in a museum of zoology or anthropology.” Yet, this strange little statuette also had its supporters; many saw it marking a turning point in the history of modern sculpture. Joris-Karl Huysmans, writing in L’Art moderne, praised it as “the only truly modern attempt I know of in sculpture.” The critic Paul de Charry called it “extraordinarily real,” adding that the “model is perfect.” French writer and muse of the Impressionists Nina de Villard declared it to be “the leading expression of the new art.” Even Ephrussi understood this, despite expressing moral revulsion over the choice of subject matter; he called The Little Dancer “a new endeavour, an attempt at realism in sculpture.”

The subject depicted by the sculpture of The Little Dancer was a member of the corps de ballet, a thin, tired, deliberately unsexy specimen of the rats who populated the Paris Opéra, a crystallization of ideas that Degas had been experimenting with for decades in his ballerina paintings. Degas was forty-seven at the time of the unveiling, but he had already been exhibiting his evocative images of ballerinas for almost a decade, starting in 1871. Degas haunted the backstage world of the Opéra, depending on the generosity of wealthier friends with subscriptions to get him backstage and into the foyer de la danse. His interest in the dancers went beyond the erotic, the glamorous, and the conventional. While his brother kept a ballerina as a mistress, there is no documentation to support that Degas himself ever had sexual relations with any of the ballerinas he portrayed and befriended. He was more interested in the cold, hard stamp of hard work and fatigue he saw imprinted on their bodies. He depicted them not as objects of desire but as spent and sweaty athletes, caught up in the banal act of their training. In sonnets, Degas extolled the truths and the illusions he encountered at the ballet: “One knows that in your world/Queens are made of distance and greasepaint,” he wrote around 1889. “The dance instils in you something that sets you apart/Something heroic and remote.”

The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen was by far his most controversial work. The statuette didn’t sell, and Degas never exhibited her in public again, preferring to live with her in private for the rest of his life, jokingly referring to her as his daughter. After Degas died in 1917, at age eighty-three, the sculpture was cast in bronze in Paris. Several of these bronzes are now in major international museums, including the National Gallery in Washington, which has the most. The original wax statuette appears not to have survived.

Close Up of The Little Dancer by Degas.

She is loved and admired today. One of the few bronzes in public hands sold at auction in London in 2009 for just over $19 million, a record price for a Degas statue. But in the day, The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen was a figure of great controversy. The storm of mixed reactions that swirled around the sculpture’s debut—people hating it or loving it as if it were a real person—was linked to the ongoing popularity of ballet in nineteenth-century Paris. Dancers, even unknowns like Marie van Goethem, triggered a visceral response in a citizenry for whom ballerinas were like pop stars, aggressively celebrated and intrusively scrutinized as touchstones of collective erotic desire. Outside the Opéra, photographs of ballerinas were widely circulated in the tens of thousands and their stage performances analyzed; a subgenre of newspaper reporting called “coulisses” journalism and salacious memoirs fed the public taste for ballerina gossip and rags-to-riches stories within the confines of the Palais Garnier. Female dancers, once marginalized, now preoccupied the popular imagination. “Far from being an esoteric activity followed by the few, ballet at the Opéra filled the gossip columns and reviews, featured in cheap illustrations and widely read novels, and supported a cult of personality that has few rivals even today,” observes contemporary Degas scholar Richard Kendall. “Analogies have been proposed with cinema in the golden age of Hollywood or television in our own time, but both cases fall short of the mark, missing the extraordinary fusion of the highest artistic standards with the most blatant and officially sanctioned vice, and the concentration of both in a single edifice, the Palais Garnier.”

Marie wasn’t one of the ballet girls often gossiped about, existing beyond the range of the Opéra’s celebrity radar, and so it is not known if she took a patron when recruited into the Paris Opéra at the bottom of the pay scale after passing her exams in 1880. She and her sister Charlotte had both become company members; they earned bonuses for their participation in some shows, in addition to yearly salaries. Marie had an annual contract of 900 francs, or a monthly salary of 75 francs plus bonuses, while Charlotte had an annual contract of 852 francs, in addition to the bonuses she earned while dancing. In May 1880, with salaries and bonuses combined, Marie earned a monthly wage of 109 francs and Charlotte 82 francs. Their older sister, Antoinette, never had a contract and worked as an extra doing mostly walk-on roles, paid by performance. She had early on become a prostitute to supplement her meager earnings. By 1882, she was serving a three-month sentence in the notorious Saint Lazare prison for having been caught stealing 700 francs from a john—a date with an abonné gone terribly wrong.

It seems that Marie and her sister were, initially, more disciplined. They never ran afoul of the Opéra administration but appear to have been dutiful employees. In 1880, both sisters appear in the premiere performance of Louis Mérante’s La Korrigane, starring Rosita Mauri (1849–1923), the leading ballerina of her day; in the ballet, Marie plays a peasant and Charlotte a sprite. In 1881, the year of the debut of The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, they are together again, dancing in Le Tribut de Zamora; this time, Marie is a slave and Charlotte a street performer.

The sculpture shows what Marie looked like at this time—her body long, lean, lithe, and well suited to dancing the roles in the Opéra’s ever-expanding classical repertoire. It seems that although she came from the criminal fringes of Paris, she had the physique that would enable her to move rapidly through the ranks of one of the world’s most demanding ballet academies. The statuette confirms that she had a pronounced turnout of the legs and feet, originating from the pelvis, a quality she either was born with or acquired in the ballet studio. She also had flexible ankles, permitting her to create with her body a fluid, classical line. Degas gives a sense of her progression, presenting Marie as an older, more prominent ballerina in a pastel entitled Dancer with Long Hair Bowing, produced in the mid-1880s. In this portrait, she appears to be fulfilling her promise as a ballerina: she is no longer a rat but a sujet, or soloist, and is surrounded by her own little-girl attendants.

Soon after, Marie disappears from sight. There is confusion as to what happened to her. Lillian Browse, whose 1949 book, Degas Dancers, includes first-hand interviews with some of the artist’s surviving models, says that Marie enjoyed an association with the Opéra until 1914.54 But other accounts suggest that she was fired from the ballet in 1882, which appears closer to the truth. Never having been a celebrity like the courtesans within the Opéra, Marie didn’t figure much in the gossip columns detailing the comings and goings of the leading ballerinas of the day. She merits only one mention,when still fifteen and just starting her dancing career, which appeared in the local newspaper, L’Événement, on February 10, 1882. The anonymously penned column refers to a “Mademoiselle Van Goeuthen,” identified as a “model . . . for painters, who is frequently seen at the Brasserie des Martyrs, the Nouvelle Athènes café and the bar of the Rat Mort.” These were not the kind of places young ladies wanting a future in ballet were meant to be seen. The Rat Mort, at 7 rue Pigalle, was an all-night establishment popular with artists (Degas was a regular) and others eager to meet easy women. Marie, that skinny dancer with a prickly attitude, was hardly the type. But her mother, you could say, had insisted, having prostituted her, along with her older sister, to the world of the demimonde, presumably because she needed to put food on the table. It would be Marie’s undoing.

“I could tell you things to make you blush or make you weep,” the anonymous newspaper writer continues in his column about Marie. And then he says nothing more.

By June of that year, Marie’s name was stricken from the company’s roster for having missed eleven ballet classes during the month of April. She was unemployed and likely in desperate straits. Last seen at the Chat Noir nightclub in 1882, she was accompanying her now much more popular younger sister, Charlotte, described insinuatingly in the press “as a pretty petit rat who could very well become a first ballerina in a few years” (provided she behaved). After that, Marie is never heard of again.

Charlotte did behave, and the prophecy about her career at the Opéra did come true. The youngest van Goethem sister enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the Paris Opéra, entering the dance school in 1880, at age ten, and retiring in 1933, at age sixty-four. She rose steadily through the ranks.


She started her dancing career as a member of a quadrille group in 1883, becoming its leader in 1887; in 1889, she became a soloist. She danced until 1907, at which time she retired from the stage and became a teacher within the school. For a brief time, in 1927, she instructed Yvette Chauviré, a grand étoile of the Paris Opéra, described as France’s greatest ballerina. At the end of her days, Charlotte claimed that she also once posed for the great Degas. It is now supposed that she is the ballerina depicted in the portrait called Dancer (circa 1895) in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The ballerina’s bracelet and brooch are identical to jewelry worn by Charlotte in a photograph of her in costume, taken before 1898. If she is the same dancer, not only was she a Degas model who made good but a petit rat who clawed her way to the top of her profession on her own merits—that is, her dancing skills.

Marie, on the other hand, ends our story much as she started: the subject of much speculation. Like the statuette that bears her likeness, she remains an enigma. In 2003, the Paris Opéra attempted to make sense of her life through the creation of a new work inspired by her image as originally captured by Degas. La Petite Danseuse de Degas featured original choreography by chief ballet master Patrice Bart and a new score by contemporary French composer Denis Levaillant. Based, in part, on the given facts of her life, the plot follows Marie as a young student, taking class and dreaming of rivaling the top danseuse and working after hours as an artist’s model. What happens next in the ballet is semi-fictional: pushed by her mother into prostitution, Marie attaches herself to an abonné, is caught stealing from him, and goes to Saint-Lazare prison, after which she is expelled from the Opéra and becomes a laundress, as her mother professed to be. At the ballet’s conclusion, Marie climbs inside a glass box and assumes the pose in the Degas statue that has made her world famous and forever frozen in time. It was an original creation. But like the sculpture in its day, the ballet received mixed reviews, including this one by a critic who observed the premiere performance: “The program notes almost read like a sociology text, while the dance impulse gets lost along the way.”

The poor girl never could win.

NOTE: For this excerpt, all the footnote numbers were removed. The references may be found in the published edition.

From the book Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection , © 2012, by Deirdre Kelly. Published in 2012 by Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

 Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Deirdre's second book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published (Greystone Books).

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