Working Girls

Everyone knows that the Degas and the Dance exhibition opening this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be a really big show. Thus, the idea of creating a ballet to contribute to and exploit the festivities doesn't require a great leap of the imagination. “You could set it to Chopin's music,” says Pennsylvania Ballet dancer-choreographer Matthew Neenan. “It could be a very nice ballet, with pretty white tutus, and it could be very well received if it were craftfully done.”

As it happens, Neenan was chosen to choreograph a Degas ballet, though not to Chopin, which the Pennsylvania Ballet will perform from February 14th to 22nd at the Academy of Music. (Also on the bill is a surefire crowd-pleaser, John Butler's version of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.) While the Ballet has had a tradition of artistic directors choreographing their major new productions, Neenan has emerged from among the dancers as the principal choreographer of the Roy Kaiser era. This is the fourth dance he has created for the company since 1997. And because it deals with an important figure in the history of art and dance, and because it has been created from scratch with the composer, Media-based Robert Maggio, and the designers, it promises to be an important indication of Neenan's stature as a choreographer.

The title of the ballet, Le Travail-which means “work,” in the sense of labor-hints that the company is serving up something more ambitious than a frothy tie-in. There will be tutus-short classical ones and longer neoclassical ones-and a stage full of ballerinas dancing en pointe. But the music will be new, and so will the attitude.


The presence of such a major exhibition
as Degas and the Dance, which has already received widespread critical acclaim at its other U.S. stop, the Detroit Institute of Arts, would make it risky for a choreographer to simply set clichés to music. The exhibition invites a new view of Degas, and a ballet that seeks to respond to it cannot be ignorant of the show's lessons.

Many of us remember Degas's paintings, pastels, sculptures and prints as merely pretty. If you examine them closely, however, it is evident that very few are, at least in a conventional sense. There is muscle beneath the dazzle, and plenty of failure and pain. Beauty is difficult, Degas demonstrates. His is often a backstage view, and when he looks from the audience-as if through opera glasses-he is likely to focus on dancers in the background who must strive to fit in and to be noticed. One sees only hints of the elaborate stage settings and special effects that characterized the productions he viewed.

By looking at spectacles and finding intimacy, Degas may have prepared viewers' eyes and tastes for new kinds of dance that eschewed Cinema-scope tableaux and convoluted, supernatural stories for works that show familiar relationships, and that explore everyday movement in simple or abstract settings. Degas was probably history's all-time greatest celebrator of the ballerina. But by showing the labor of appearing weightless, he may have opened the door for a wider range of gesture, scale and meaning than he was able to see onstage in 19th-century Paris.

A contemporary choreographer like Neenan can make use of the same movements, training and traditions that shaped the sylphs of the Paris Opera, but he is also heir to a century of works that allow dancers to move their hips, stand on the soles of their feet, and escape the beloved but constricting fairy-tale plots.

A degas ballet wasn't neenan's idea. The subject was suggested by Kaiser, after Art Museum officials invited the city's dance community to respond to the planned exhibition. Neenan had the option of rejecting the idea, but he decided to jump right in. Degas is part of the culture of dance; reproductions of his works are on the walls of every ballet school from here to Moscow to Yellowknife, and Neenan says most of what he knew of the artist came from a lifetime of not looking very closely at these posters.

He contrasts his approach with that of choreographer Margo Sappington, whose Rodin, Mis en Vie was performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet last spring. Sappington was passionate about the works of Auguste Rodin, and she spent, Neenan says, five years studying them and considering how to bring them to life. While five years was more than Neenan could swing, he did want to create something more substantial than Kirk Peterson's pretty, but unambitious, Dancing With Monet, also presented last spring. (The art-inspired ballet trend persists: Neenan's piece will no doubt be compared to a Paris Opera Ballet debut in April, a Degas-inspired full-evening work called Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.)

Neenan and his collaborators, Maggio and Steven Weber, designer of the costumes and sets, needed to learn what exhibition-goers will discover at Degas and the Dance and then create a work that could stand on its own. They looked at reproductions of works in the show and met with its curators. Neenan read many of Degas's writings and looked for ways to evoke the artist's view of dance.

“Degas looks at dancers' backs, so that will be part of the dance,” Neenan said. “He was interested in what happened backstage, so we will use scrims and other devices to show his interest in behind-the-scenes private moments and intrigue.” One section of Le Travail, in which the ballerinas will shed their tutus for flesh-colored costumes, will evoke Degas's nude studies of dancers who posed for him in his studio.

At the time we talked, Neenan didn't have a completed ballet, only a set of intentions and ideas that wouldn't be realized until he began working with the dancers. He could predict, though, that the new ballet's movement wouldn't seek to evoke that of dances Degas knew, such as Giselle. Nor would there be any attempt to duplicate any of the artist's works onstage.

In his research, Neenan became fascinated with one theme Degas doesn't depict directly, but which captivated his contemporaries: the ballerinas' sex lives. In 19th-century Paris, dancers were like movie stars and rock stars combined, and the press covered their doings and scandals. While the ballet was prestigious, many of its dancers were known to be sexually available, and one perk of being a season ticket-holder was the right to go backstage at the Paris Opera and mingle in a foyer where dancers waited and practiced and liaisons were arranged.

It has been argued that Degas's works, with their telephoto-like close-ups of individual ballerinas and almost total absence of male dancers, reflect a sexually predatory point of view. While Neenan doesn't necessarily accept that notion, he says that what he has learned of ballerinas' paradoxical status as both sylphs and harlots will help shape his ballet. Even though Degas, unlike other artists who portrayed the ballet, doesn't depict contacts between the dancers and their admirers, Neenan will try to incorporate the suggestion of backstage intrigue into his dance.

Though it lasts just under half an hour, Le Travail, with its new music for full orchestra, new production and large cast, is clearly an ambitious work, not simply an attempt to exploit the Museum's blockbuster show. Indeed, the Ballet's marketing for this month's program scarcely mentions the Degas-inspired piece, instead emphasizing the perennially popular Carmina Burana. New works can be a tough sell. Neenan isn't yet a brand-name choreographer, and the slightly raunchy Carmina is a can't-miss hit, a sort of Nutcracker for grown-ups. Perhaps the Art Museum's show-and the press buzz it has raised about the artist, his ballerina models, and the lovely and lascivious world they inhabited-will help turn Neenan's latest work into a perennial, too.