Very little is known about the life of Marie van Goethem, the 14-year-old dancer whose form and face became the basis for Edgar Degas’ infamous sculpture, La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen).
Originally molded from pigmented beeswax in the late 19th century, the adolescent figure bends her arms back, her right leg extended in fourth position and her chin half-tilted toward the sky. Why Degas made such a drastic departure from his vivid figure paintings remains unclear, but initial reviews of the piece — itself an unusual addition to the artist’s exhibition of criminal physiognomy studies -— ran the gamut from confusion to outrage.
The real Marie van Goethem never issued a public response to the critiques; it is uncertain whether she ever paid a visit to the sculpture during its brief showing at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. Still a child, still mired in poverty and soon thereafter dismissed from her position at the Paris Opera Ballet, she faded from history altogether.
It is precisely that mystery upon which Marie, Dancing Still turns. The new musical, a collaboration among book writer/lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty, and director/choreographer Susan Stroman, opened for previews at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre on Friday, March 22. Official performances are slated to begin on April 5 and run through April 14.
Marie isn’t a whodunit, nor does it require the kind of revisionist excavation Ahrens and Flaherty’s previous work demanded (see: Anastasia). Those seeking a concrete resolution to the little dancer’s century-old disappearance will not find it within the captivating intersection of ballet and musical theatre — at least, not this time around.
Framed by the shifting canvas-like partitions of Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design (not to mention the gilded picture frame that literally encircles the stage), Marie’s story forms yet another piece of art, and one that invites as much nuanced interpretation as the wax model that bears her image.
At its center: Marie herself, inhabited in a dual role by Tony nominee Louise Pitre and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck. Pitre enlivens the heart of the show in numerous solos, weaving in and out of the story as a wistful, prescient narrator who knows a little more — and reveals a little more — than she should. Flaherty’s score is sweeping and tasteful here, perhaps never better than in the opening number-turned-earworm, “C’est le Ballet.”
Peck’s vocal talent, though clear and bright, is understandably tamped down as her exquisite footwork is played up, and her charisma and fluidity appear perfectly suited to the complexities of Stroman’s choreography. (“The Choices: A Ballet” is Stroman’s pedestal of choice, and one that feels undeservedly buried within Act 2.)
What looks effortless is not always easy, however. Through intermittent flashbacks, we watch 14-year-old Marie struggle to earn her keep in the cutthroat world of highbrow artistry and dance. Scrappy, sweet, and hard-working, she is both an aspiring dancer and the dutiful daughter of an impoverished laundress; a smart-aleck child and a teenager in the first blush of puppy love. The line between girlhood and adulthood is a difficult one for the showrunners to straddle, and one that becomes increasingly blurred during Marie’s more intimate encounters with Opéra violinist Christian (Kyle Harris).
Marie’s Artful Dodger routine eventually gets her in hot water with renowned Realist painted Edgar Degas (Terrence Mann). Starved for inspiration, Degas blackmails the girl into modeling for his next set of figure studies, and the two quickly develop a prickly rapport. It is a relationship that, like her romance with Christian, better serves a narrower age gap; Marie can keep pace with the Beast-like Degas, but we are hard-pressed to remember that the cheeky young girl trading insults between poses is just that: a young girl. (For obvious reasons, Ahrens and Flaherty steer the musical away from historical accounts of Marie posing naked for the artist, a shade of realism that would have exponentially raised the ick factor.)
While Mann imbues Degas’ gruff character with a veritable palette of baritone-rich feeling, he stops just short of earning the audience’s full sympathy. No amount of soliloquizing, no matter how earnest the delivery, can fully exonerate the artist’s incurably misogynistic attitude toward his female peers, let alone the moments in which his anger drives him to shake, shove, and berate young Marie.
Like Degas, Ahrens’ antagonists prowl around the fringes of Marie’s life. Her mother, Martine (Karen Ziemba), quite literally takes on the persona of “The Absinthe Drinker” as she teeters into alcoholism and abuse; her eldest daughter, Antoinette (Jenny Powers), swaps pointe shoes for the gaudy trappings of a kept prostitute; pedophilic patrons infest the lobby of the Opéra Garnier in a bald-faced attempt to trade their wealth and influence for sexual favors from the school-age dancers. Even Marie’s peers, outfitted by costume designer William Ivey Long in multicolored tutus as brilliantly-hued as any in Degas’ paintings, foil the dancer’s dreams of rising to the top of her class.
Still, the greatest danger in Marie’s path is not rape, nor domestic violence, nor the prospect of choosing between prostitution and starvation, nor the misfortune of missing out on a title role, but simply that of unfulfilled potential. How she lived becomes less important than how she is remembered, a narrative choice that offers Ahrens and Flaherty a tidy bow to slap on a story with no clear-cut conclusion.
Is it really enough that Marie van Goethem inspired a great artist at the expense of her own talent and career? Can we trust that Degas’ motivation in creating the sculpture stemmed from a desire to show his audience the truth (of poverty, of youth, of injustice) and not, as has been frequently theorized, from his own racist prejudices? (“She may be your daughter, as she is mine,” he entreats the gallery critics, but they cannot separate the exotic from the criminal in her countenance.) Does she command the enormous legacy Mary Cassatt (Dee Hoty) would bestow upon her, that of the ‘most famous dancer’ to ever live?
There can be no answer but ‘yes,’ we are told.
When we first meet Marie van Goethem as an adult, she is received by Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt amid the clutter and hubbub of Degas’ Parisian art studio. It is 1917; Degas is recently dead, and Marie is anxious for a glimpse of the statue that so profoundly destroyed the life she once dreamed of.
“I’m sorry, but his wishes were clear,” Cassatt tells the woman.
“His wishes?” Marie retorts. “What about my wishes?”
The question lingers in the air. It is one we are dying to have answered, and one that the real Marie van Goethem never satisfied to any journalist or historian. We don’t know what Marie’s wishes would have been: if she cherished the statue or despised it, if she regretted those afternoons with Degas, if she blamed him for the unraveling of a promising career in the ballet, if she ever danced again.
But, as with any thoughtful reimagining of long-forgotten history, we can certainly imagine how Marie might have reacted to the little statue she inspired. (Pitre gets it just right, though any further details would spoil a lovely climactic moment.)
And that brings something far sweeter than certainty: the closure of a happy ending.
Performances reviewed: 8:00 p.m. debut on Friday, March 22 and 8:00 p.m. preview performance on Saturday, March 23. Cast, set, and plot choices may not reflect current production when it opens on April 5. Marie, Dancing Still runs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through April 14, 2019.