Busy body meditations

About the beauty of Degas’ work studying the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera there is no argument. The works — even the seemingly tossed-off sketches — offer an entrée not only to a world where privileged patrons or monastically devoted dancers tread, but also reveal a uniquely up-close study of finely filigreed movement. That, in and of itself, is a revelation that the DIA’s “Degas and the Dance” exhibit should be marketing. But mere kinesiological trainspotting ain’t enough to get Joe Public to cough up the 16 bones to get into the suite of galleries that holds this massive collection of Degas’ signature works.

The paradox is that close bodily observation is exactly what Degas was doing — regardless of the apparent glamour the Paris Opera backdrop provided and the romance that his impressionist method and the passage of time afford museumgoers. The net effect of “Degas and the Dance” is a slow-boiling appreciation of the infinite discipline of the study and performance of ballet. You can’t leave the exhibit without thinking you’ve been taking each step, arm gesture and tiny movement for granted.

“The way he studied the body, the way he played with light and color is totally fascinating,” notes my better half, Kelly, about the exhibit. Then again, she’s a dancer, choreographer and massage therapist. This is her wheelhouse:

“I think people are fascinated by the strictness of ballet, of the discipline. That’s the appeal of ballet — challenging you to push and discipline your body as far as it will go in the search for perfect movement.”

But who wants to go look at a hundred paintings of dancers being put through their disciplined paces?

If a recent visit to the DIA is any indication, lots of folks agree with Kelly. In the middle of a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of folks — from tiny tykes to senior citizens — wander the galleries, attempting to transport themselves to Paris, circa 1880.

Despite the fact that I catch a docent lingering just inside my peripheral vision like a department store gumshoe the whole time, it’s a leisurely way to pass an afternoon. And if you can suppress your snickering (or contempt) at the sight of dozens of people wandering around with audio-tour devices — a sort of cross between a universal remote control and a supersized cell phone — glued to their ears with the volume up just high enough to interrupt your reverie, it’s delightful. (For what it’s worth, the children’s version of the audio tour is a lot more fun!)

Oh, and don’t be put off by the overzealous security battalion stationed mostly in the first two rooms. Their job is to train naughty artgoers that they’re not to step over the black line, and the troops are not shy about enforcement. But you know what? It works. No one gets all crazy and starts licking the paintings. Nor does anyone snatch a sculpture and make a run for it. Why risk it, after all, when there’s a gift shop at the exit of the exhibit that has a selection of Degas paraphernalia and tchotchkes that answer the unasked question: What does Impressionist Day look like at Wal-Mart?

Speaking of gift shops, reproductions and other relative trifles, there’s been a bit of hubbub about the sculptures included in “Degas and the Dance.” From overblown claims that they’re “counterfeit” to grumblings about them being merely “reproductions,” the sculptures are a minor tempest in a little teapot. But when the lead image the DIA is using to market the exhibit is a photo of one of the sculptures, the brouhaha deserves at least an explanation.

The work in question, “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” (pictured), is the only wax sculpture Degas exhibited during his lifetime. Long story short: In his studio, Degas would create wax figures of the ballet dancers to sort of psych himself up for the painting process. Depending on whom you ask, he either a) never intended to have these figures cast in bronze (as they were after his death, in closely watched, numbered editions) or b) fully intended to finish them in bronze as lasting works of sculpture, but he just didn’t get around to it or exhibit them.

The sculptures on display in “Degas and the Dance” are clearly marked as reproductions. Indeed, the “scandal” is largely a matter of semantics. In the context of the exhibit — with its wise inclusion of contextual works, photographs, interactive displays and other elements — it matters even less. These figures — whether they were intended merely as study objects or as stand-alone works — are important to our understanding of Degas’ artistic mission.

The works are grouped thematically rather than chronologically — roughly “Studio,” “Classroom,” “Stage,” “Classical Greek Movements,” etc. The layout is labyrinthine and the subject matter similar enough to keep you feeling a bit dizzied by the whole kit ’n’ caboodle. (And it might get a bit claustrophobic at times, if the crowds swell as they are wont to do at these blockbuster, everyman art exhibits). In the plush, high-ceilinged room in which Degas’ paintings of performances are displayed, you can really sink your teeth into the opulence.

It must be said that the DIA has constructed a truly immersive experience, if you let yourself get into it. They must have done extensive attention-span studies on patrons to have found precisely the right spots to give folks’ brains a break. About one-third of the way through, we’re invited to sit down and touch some computer screens to get a look at Degas’ virtual notebook. It’s neat. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects.

After a brief sojourn, it’s back to the art. With my brain firmly switched back on, I overhear a docent chatting up a high school music and drama teacher about how great the performing arts are and how Degas captured it all “exquisitely.” True enough. Whether in his sketches, sculptures, portraits or scenes, he spent enough time to get “Behind the Music,” so to speak.

A bit farther down the Degas Brick Road, exhibit visitors’ reading, listening and pondering muscles are spelled, and they’re asked to give ballet a try themselves. As if to say, “Oh, yeah?! You think it’s just a bunch of pretty pictures of girls tying their slippers?! Come on, tough guy,” the DIA has constructed an admittedly modern-looking mini ballet studio. It’s complete with enough barres to accommodate the curious masses that may throng to the exhibit, with Arthur Murray-esque footprints to coax you into proper foot positions. Two middle-aged women in sweaters and slacks indulge their tutu’d past and acquit themselves quite nicely, executing several moves.

These between-art experiences are the gee-gaws that glue the whole together. “Degas and the Dance” is a lot to take in. The exhibit may not take a ton of business away from the Detroit Lions. But if you’ve ever been caught up in the bustle of backstage, fascinated by the shadow play of the footlights or taken to the gestural, ideal otherworlds that the ballet creates, there’s a whole world to discover in Degas’ meditations on movement.


“Degas and the Dance” is at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) through Jan. 12, 2003. Call 866-DEGASTIX for tickets and information, or visit www.dia.org.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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