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Degas and the Little Dancer

From amongst the books I’ve chosen to share with the children for the Art Theme that we are doing this term, this one is probably my favourite.

It’s been in my collection for many years, having bought it for my ‘little ballerina in the making’, many moons ago, it tells the story of a famous sculpture that we saw at the Degas gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. When we visited the Met, I made sure to take D to the Degas gallery, to show her his famous ‘ballerinas’. Oh how beautiful they were!!.

Edgar Degas is most well known for his paintings of ballerinas. Being a part of Monet’s gang of rebel impressionists along with Pissaro, Morisot, Renoir and others, a book about him was a natural choice to follow last week's read, ‘Mornings with Monet.’

The class began with a short video of a 360 degree view of ‘The Little Dancer’.

“What is this form of art called?”

A few were familiar with the term, most weren’t. Terms like clay modelling and statue were bandied about. The word I was looking for was ‘sculpture’ and we discussed the different mediums of sculpture...from wood to stone, from metal, to papier mache, from wire to clay...sculpture as a form of art.

The book tells the story of Marie van Goethen, a little girl who hopes and dreams of becoming the most famous ballerina in the world.

Her parents, a tailor and laundress struggle to save enough of money to send her to ballet school at the Paris Opera house, where the sight of a moody, angry Edgar Degas is regular.

Her hard work pays off, putting her on track for the lead role in the Christmas ballet. However when her father falls ill the family cannot afford Marie's lessons. To augment their income, she agrees to model for the famously cranky artist. She stands for hours in uncomfortable poses, the money she earns going towards doctors' bills , not enough to pay her fees. As she poses, Marie can see her dream of being the most famous ballerina, vanish.

What I love about this book is that it is not just a biographical sketch, but instead a skilfully woven tale that will keep children enthralled.

The illustrations are gorgeous, and I love that many are reproductions of Degas real art work, or images of his art.

When the children saw the image of Degas on the cover, they thought he was ‘swag’ as he seemed to be dressed very well, giving us a clue to his wealthy background.

The expression on his face garnered responses that claimed he was unhappy because no one was buying his paintings.

My students had a mixed response to his art, featured in the book. While some thought that his sketches of the ballerinas were beautiful, others felt they were messy. Some found his style ‘weird’ and ordinary, others found it luminous and that the messiness in the background brought the ballerinas in focus.

We discussed about whether Marie did become the most famous ballerina in the world, as she had hoped and dreamed. With prompting from their peers, nearly all the children agreed that Degas has immortalised her, and though she lived so long ago, we know about her thanks to this story and many others know about her thanks to the museums around the world that display the original ‘Little Dancer’ or one of the twenty copies made after Degas death.

The children enjoyed this story and I find that they are better able to relate to a biography, if there is a child featured or if the story features the artist in his childhood.

“The rain on the museum roof sounds like a thousand hands clapping for Marie, the most famous dancer in the world.”

We ended the class, with a rain clap for Marie….index finger on opposite palm, then two fingers, three, four and five….back down to one!!

The children all felt she deserved all the applause in the world.

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