Denis LEVAILLANT (b.1952)
La Petite Danseuse de Degas - A ballet in two parts from an original idea by Patrice Bart and Martine Kahane
Choreography by Patrice Bart
Director of Dance – Brigitte Lefèvre
Set Design by Ezio Toffolutti
Costume Design by Sylvie Skinazie
Lighting by Marion Hewlett
The Little Dancer - Clairemarie Osta
The Etiole Dancer - Dorothée Gilbert
The Ballet Master - Mathieu Ganio
The Subscription Holder - José Martinez
The Man in Black - Benjamin Pech
The Mother - Elisabeth Maurin
The Caf’conc’ Singer - Stéphanie Romberg
The Violinist - Emmanuel Thibault
Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris
Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris/Koen Kessels
Plus bonus: interviews with Denis Levaillant, Patrice Bart, Martine Kahane, and Brigitte Lefèvre
EUROARTS DVD 108 026 [112:00; Interviews: 20:00]

Composer and pianist, Denis Levaillant was born in Paris in 1952. His music comprises works in a wide variety of forms including opera, ballet, orchestral, choral, chamber and electro-acoustic music and material for radio and film. He began studying the piano at the age of six, and recorded Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales when he was 12. He is reported to be fascinated by dance, jazz, improvisation and the circus. He holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy.

When the choreographer of La Petit Danseuse de Degas heard Denis Levaillant’s Piano Concerto, he was so impressed that he not only contracted Levaillant to write the music for his ballet but also used the music of the Concerto’s Andante in the ballet.

Edgar Degas’ La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans
Edgar Degas’s sculpted La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans" ("Little Dancer of Fourteen Years of age") circa. 1881.

It is a sculpture of a dance student called Marie van Goethem. Unusually for its time, the sculpture was made in wax and dressed in a cotton skirt with a hair ribbon. It stands on a wooden base. Later, in 1922, 27 bronze casts were made. When La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans was shown at Paris’s Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, it caused immediate controversy. Many critics were shocked. It was thought to be ugly; some felt it looked like a medical specimen partly because it was exhibited in a glass case. Some considered it grotesque and primitive. The sculpture can be seen today in the Quai d’Orsay Museum, Paris.

The relationship between Marie van Goethem and Edgar Degas (pictured right) is contentious but it was not unheard of, in the 1880s for young artists of the Paris Opera to seek the protection of their stage-door admirers. Marie van Goethem grew up with her two sisters in a deprived suburb of Paris. When their father died, their mother made ends meet by enrolling her daughters at the Opera’s ballet school and hiring them out as artists’ models in their studios. But this business collapsed when the girls, encouraged by their mother, drifted into the world of petty crime and prostitution.

This sculpture, the story of Marie van Goethem and the art of Edgar Degas have all inspired this ballet. [In the story of the Ballet, the little dancer represents all three daughters.]

La Petite Danseuse de Degas – The Ballet review.

The story is set around the dreams and aspirations of the little dancer whose ambition is to become an étoile (principal ballerina). But her more realistic, more down-to-earth mother knows they could never afford such long and intensive training and is set upon exploiting her daughter. Inevitably the little dancer is compromised and, at length, is caught stealing a rich ballet fan’s money, and subsequently dismissed from the Opèra, imprisoned, then put to work in the sweat shop that is the Laundry, her dreams shattered.

Put simply, this imginative ballet is stunning. The costumes throughought all the varied scenes and locations (streets, dance class, artist’s studio, Opera ball, cabaret, prison and laundry) are all exquisite. Just one example: in the ballet class the dancers’ white dresses have beautifully harmonised pastel-coloured sashes and underskirts; and the dancers’ groupings and attitudes in repose are so aptly and beautifully lit that their resemblance to Degas’s paintings is quite uncanny. Ezio Toffolutti’s sets are simple but effective and again they not only enhance the feeling of clever emulations of Degas’s artwork but also reflect the reality that is, for instance, the Opèra’s ballet schoolroom.

The sense of the reality of the dancers’ life behind the little dancer’s dream world is evident in so many ways and is a tribute to Patrice Bart and his team’s research and imagination. At the beginning of the dancing class scene, for instance, we see a male junior dancer with his water jug preparing the dancing area for the little girls’ practice – this sequence is daintily choreographed, the girls’ dancing being full of charm and innocence. We also note that the musician attending the student dancers is a violinist not a pianist; this is historically accurate.

Bart’s choreography and the dancing of all the leads and the corps de ballet is consistently top drawer. La Petite Danseuse de Degas is very much an ensemble ballet. Clairmarie Osta as the petite danceuse is central and she so touchingly conveys, in Bart’s adroitly conceived dances, the 14-year old’s vulnerability, her starry-eyed ambitions grounded by her naiveté, her unwittingly comic posturing and ultimately her desolation. She is supported by a wonderful cast. All shine: Dorothée Gilbert is sublimely graceful as the fairy godmother-like étoile. She is strongly partnered by Mathieu Ganio as the dancing master – one of the highlights of the production is the pas de trois dance between these two and la petite danseuse during the latter’s dream sequence. José Martinez as the subscription holder to whose seduction la petite is forced by her mother - tellingly portrayed by Elisabeth Maurin cast in a wicked step-mother-like portrayal to extend the fairy tale imagery - is lofty and aloof. The Man in Black who can be interpreted as Degas and the little girl’s Destiny is a shadowy puppetmaster figure.

Denis Levaillant’s interesting mix of tonal and atonal music - sometimes gleaming, diamond-hard and often favouring batteries of percussion, particularly xylophone and tubular bells - spans many styles from the baroque to modernism and jazy figures via Late Romanticism and Impressionism.

An inspired and visually ravishing creation. This ballet deserves to go from success to success.

Ian Lace

An inspired and visually ravishing creation. This ballet deserves to go from success to success.

Degas resource page