A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Seeping Blood From The Paris Opera Ballet
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some weeks ago I purchased two books for Rebecca in my hopes that I can wean her away from Nancy Drew. One of the books is called Portraits – Dancing Through Fire by Kathryn Lasky. The book is set in the Paris Opera of Degas in the latter part of the 19th century and is about a little ballerina that is a tad too short. When Rebecca saw the book her comment was, “It’s too difficult. And it isn’t a mystery.” I had a suspicion she would place the book in her bookcase in her room where it would languish with many of the other books I have given her.

To be fair this has not always been the case. She has read the rose books I have given her so many times that she knows more about roses at age 12 than I did when I first started gardening in 1986.

Rosemary decided to read Rebecca the first chapter. Now the Saturday afternoon routine is that they read each other a chapter from this book and Rebecca is hooked. The Prussians are at the gates of Paris in this novel so Rosemary has been reading about the Franco/Prussian war and Napoleon III so as to answer Rebecca’s questions.

There are a few people reading to other people in our family. Rosemary has been reading and helping Lauren read her books in French so that she can move up to the level that she is supposed to be. She is not quite there. Last night when Rosemary and I were babysitting at the girls’ house it was awfully quiet. It was 9 pm. Rosemary told me to go upstairs to see what the girls were up to. It was a sight to warm my heart. There was Rebecca reading to Lauren in bed. I asked Rosemary if Ale had ever read to Hilary. She did not remember. I asked Hilary who confirmed my suspicions that this never happened but did mention that I had read to them frequently including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Returning to the book about the ballerina, since Degas is one of the protagonists I suspect that the little novel may be partly based on Degas’ The Little Fourteen-Year-Old-Dancer, Marie Van Goethem who until had faded from history soon after she modeled for Degas. But unfortunately we now know that as soon as she grew up her mother nudged her into prostitution.

The info about the littel ballerina sculpture version at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, very similar to the one at the National Gallery where Rebecca aged 5 posed for me in 2003 is as follows:

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer; cast in 1922 from a mixed-media sculpture modeled ca. 1879–80
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Bronze, partly tinted, with cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon, on a wooden base
H. 41 1/4 in. (104.8 cm)
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.370)
The model for this essentially realistic work is known to have been Marie Van Goethem. Born on June 7, 1865, she was a student at the École de Danse in Paris, and by 1880 she had been engaged as a dancer at the Opéra. The care with which Degas observed his model is reflected not only in the sculpture itself, but also in the unusual number of surviving sketches of the model in charcoal and pastel, as well as in a preparatory sculptural study of the figure in the nude. The title, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (Petite danseuse de quatorze ans), given to the original mixed-media sculpture when it was exhibited by Degas in the sixth Impressionist exhibition held in Paris in 1881, provides the most solid evidence for the sculpture's date.

I have written before of my interest in the idea of that some of Degas leached into the blood of all the dancers who ever danced at the Paris Opera Ballet. When I went to Paris in the mid 80s I made sure I passed by the old opera house (not knowing that the one that Degas frequented was an ever older one that had since disappeared). I took some satisfying photographs which I tried to make look old by using Kodak b+w Infrared film.

In 2003 I went to watch some rehearsals of Ballet BC and I was transfixed by a dancer who moved like no other. She was slow and languid and darkly beautiful. She had a wonderful French accent when she spoke English. Her name was Sandrine Cassini. I finally was able to photograph her in 2004 in my studio where she posed as an adult Marie Van Goethem. After all Cassini had danced with the Paris Opera Ballet. She had it in the blood.

I took Rebecca and Lauren to any performance that Cassini danced in and we would go backstage so that the girls would meet her. It was a few years later that Cassini (who had left Ballet BC in 2005) returned with the Alberta Ballet as the Sugar Plum Fairy. We went to a performance and then had crepes with Cassini at a creperie on Robson. It was my purpose to transfer a bit of Cassini’s Degas into Rebecca who at the time was keen at dancing at the Arts Umbrella. She has stopped dancing and this has saddened me. Lauren, 7, has started at Arts Umbrella a week back. Perhaps her enthusiasm might rub off on Rebecca.

Or a little of that Degas ballerina blood might have seeped into Lauren at the creperie. Who knows, whichever way I look at it, the ghost of the little ballerina lives on even in the book that Rebecca is so enjoying in sharing with her grandmother.

My only excuse for the poor quality of the last picture is that I used Rebecca's first digital camera. I am sure that if Rebecca had taken it, she would have succeeded in snapping a much better one!


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