Who do you think is the most famous dancer in the world? Zakharova? Kent? Baryshnikov? Guess again. It’s Marie van Goethem, the model for Edward Degas’ statue, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” Marie’s story can now be seen as a musical; it opened at the Kennedy Center last night and will run through November 20th.
The story follows the background of Marie, a struggling dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet during the late 1800s. Becoming a professional dancer was her chance at escaping poverty. The musical was created by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and director and choreographer Susan Stroman. They all shared a love of dance and were quite intrigued by one of the most well known sculptures in history.
The story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. As Degas’ statue wasn’t publicly accepted at first, it was kept hidden away in his workshop until his death. Marie was considered to be a disgrace, and was dismissed from the ballet. Despite all this, the musical really does maintain an optimistic tone and we learn a bit about what could have happened to Marie after she disappeared from the records of the Paris Opera.
I went to the very first preview of the show last night, and it was incredible. From the moment the curtain opened on the adult Marie to when it closed on the statue, the entire audience was spellbound.
Ahrens and Flaherty did an incredible job of putting together music and lyrics that perfectly captured the frantic mood of a ballerina backstage, and brought some much needed hope to the darker scenes. The script is perfectly tailored to include several humorous moments just for dancers and artists. One particular line, stated first by Degas and later repeated by Marie, “Dancing is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do,” made the entire audience laugh.
The dancing was incredible as well. Every cast member, including Degas, attempts a ballet step at some point. Some do more than attempt; Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, proves to be a triple-threat and is awe inspiring as Young Marie. There is musicality and life in every step, and Stroman clearly outdid herself with the choreography. So from the opening number, “C’est le Ballet” to the dream ballet in the second act, the movement pulls you right into the story.
The story definitely does its history justice. While much of it is actually based on writing by Degas himself as well as American artist Mary Cassat, it is also open ended; we never find out exactly what did happen to Marie van Goethem. But the significance of her life and her important role as a current inspiration to little dancers everywhere is not understated.
Visit the Kennedy Center’s website for tickets and more information about the show.