A musical that opens inside a gold picture frame instantly makes me curious. The lure of checking out the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was also calling my name so I took a bus to Washington, D.C. to see the new musical Little Dancer starring Boyd Gaines (as the painter Edgar Degas), Rebecca Luker (adult Marie) and Tiler Peck (as the ‘little dancer’ Marie). The musical is based on Lynn Ahrens book and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. The story centers around the world of Marie van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”.
The original sculpture is also on display at the National Gallery of Art. In taking a close look I was reminded of the popular description of the statue, which is that Marie embodies a mixture of elegance and toughness. I can agree that there is an innocent defiance in the jutting out of her chin as she strikes a pose gifted to her through her difficult ballet training at the Paris Opera Ballet. She was posing for an artist, Degas, who was inspired by an essence in her that he had to capture. The beauty of this relationship is extrapolated knowing that this teenager would have been called a ‘rat’. A ‘rat’ was the description given to the poverty-stricken child dancers preparing to be ballerinas at the Paris Opera House. I got the sense that an experienced Degas caused the young Marie to be still for a few moments in a world that constantly demanded her to keep moving forward despite all odds.
It is not stillness, but carefully choreographed movement that opens the musical as Marie is brought to life. Peck is a beautiful, seamless dancer. What is interesting to me as an actor in watching her dance is how she communicates the story through her movement. I got a sense of Marie off the top, before she ever speaks, before she ever has to overcome any scripted obstacles… I saw in her movement the story of a young girl who found strength and purpose in dancing ballet.
Looking back and narrating the story is Marie as an adult. We learn what happened in her own eyes as Luker shadows young Marie. The contrast of young and adult Marie allowed me to see what moved Marie through a reflection of the events by the one person that can fully understand what it all meant. Adult Marie now understands what was right and what was wrong, what was fair and not fair, and what was truly beautiful in herself and her actions as a young girl that she didn’t even realize at the time.
The true beauty in Marie’s actions was her unquestioned fight to support her family. Marie introduces us to her little sister, Charlotte, by pointing out a secret spot inside their bedroom wall where they store money to save up for Charlotte’s future ballet lessons. Knowing the harsh realities of their world first hand, Marie protects her sister from them and tries to find a way to help her become a ballerina too. It must be noted how angelic it is when Charlotte sings. I am now looking forward to watching Sophia Anne Caruso as she grows up in the theatre. Every time she sings it made me want to cry – and as an actor I thank her for the vulnerability she allowed herself to bring to the character of Charlotte.
There are more women than men in this story. Marie’s single mother, sisters, ballerina classmates, teachers and friends and they all played the love and found the humor. The men in this story often act as obstacles that Marie faces as she learns that men ‘sponsors’ at the Paris Opera House often have malicious intentions when handling what they viewed as a ‘rat’. By contrast there were bright stars in Marie’s life and some of them were men. The musician Christian, played by Kyle Harris, journeys through what starts as flirtation with Marie into the beginnings of a strong friendship and sweet young romance based on trust. The other bright star in Marie’s life was Degas who befriended Marie and promoted her career. Gaines’ truthful performance allowed me to reflect on the focus that Degas held in his work. It was this focus that did not let him realize his strong point of view in displaying Marie alongside criminals would became an action that influenced the demise of Marie’s livelihood and dance career. The painful truth is that his display was also his act of love.
The main idea that I left with after watching this musical is that different art forms and artists, and people in general, can influence each other to inspire great stories and work. A ballerina (Marie) inspired a sculpture/painter (Degas).
At the Kennedy Center there are John F. Kennedy quotes engraved in the walls, which led me to look up more. It seems fitting to the “Little Dancer” story to say, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Degas used his hands to immortalize the essence of a beautiful ballerina. To look only at the harsh changes to Marie’s career that became of the sculpture’s display would be to miss the effect it has had on the future. The sculpture, Marie’s essence captured in time, has become accessible and continues to inspire people and artists today.