Reconsidering Degas’ ballerinas

As part of our ongoing CPD programme, I recently completed an online refresher course on child sexual exploitation; the different grooming models, how to spot the signs, where to go for guidance, and so on. It’s all as horrible as you’d expect.

Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace) UK
Pace is the lead national charity working with parents and carers of exploited children.

And then, coincidentally, I spotted this article on the paintings and sculptures of ballerinas by Edgar Degas.

La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans
I’ve seen many representations of ballet dancers in Degas’ work over the years, but this time around was different because I had read Julia Wolkoff’s The Sordid Truth behind Degas’s Ballet Dancers last year.

The formerly upright ballet had taken on the role of unseemly cabaret; in Paris, its success was almost entirely predicated on lecherous social contracts. Sex work was a part of a ballerina’s reality, and the city’s grand opera house, the Palais Garnier, was designed with this in mind. A luxuriously appointed room located behind the stage, called the foyer de la danse, was a place where the dancers would warm up before performances. But it also served as a kind of men’s club, where abonnés — wealthy male subscribers to the opera — could conduct business, socialize, and proposition the ballerinas.

Sounds a little like child sexual exploitation to me. As well as prompting you to look at the sculpture of the little fourteen-year-old dancer with fresh eyes, he asks you to reconsider this painting, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage.

reconsidering-degas-ballerinas

What might look at first glance like a depiction of the beauty of dance takes on a more sinister nature when you notice the men on the right side of the painting, perhaps a pair of wealthy subscribers getting a special preview of that night’s ballet and their choice of ballerinas. You might never look at another of Degas’ ballet paintings the same way again.

Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.

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