Little dancers Long after Degas' day, ballet's graceful young hopefuls are still willing to sacrifice all for theor art.

October 03, 1998|By GLENN McNATT | GLENN McNATT,SUN STAFF

In Saturday's Today section, two photo captions with pictures showing ballet students incorrectly identified the school attended by the dancers. It is the Baltimore School for the Arts.

* The Sun regrets the error.

They are some of the hardest-working people on the planet. They undergo years of arduous training, endure terrific physical pain and keep coming back for more punishment.

At their peak, they're all taut muscle and lightning-quick reflexes. They're so strong it's scary. And still they may never make it to the pros.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Are we talking college football players? Baseball power hitters? Olympic triathletes?

At least these folks have a shot at mega-million-dollar contracts or lucrative endorsement deals if they succeed.

But no, we're talking ballet students. Ballerinas. Little dancers.

It's one of the toughest jobs around.

"We cannot imagine the courage, patience and incessant work required to become a talented dancer," wrote the 19th-century critic Albert Vizentini. "The true dancer is obsessed with her art and sacrifices everything to it."

That's surely what Edgar Degas was trying to convey in his famous sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," which the Baltimore Museum of Art has created a fascinating new exhibit around.

The show, titled "Degas and the Little Dancer," opens tomorrow and runs through Jan. 3.

Here's how Vizentini described the world of Marie van Goethem, the adolescent ballerina at the Paris Opera who served as Degas' model for "Little Dancer":

"At 16 as at 30 she must undergo the same painful exercises; stretching at the barre, lifting oneself at the knees, plies, ecartes, leaning back until the limbs creak in unison, exhausting oneself, making oneself continually hoarse, accepting neither fatigue nor sluggishness "These are the daily routines of the dancer who, after attending classes from nine until one, and rehearsal from one until four, appears in the evening with a smile on her lips to perform as a sylph as if nothing had happened."

Things haven't changed much for dancers in the intervening years.

Seventeen-year-old Emily Gibbs, a dance major at the Baltimore School for the Arts, can certainly empathize with her counterparts of the last century.

"There's never a day when I can just relax," says Gibbs, who

hopes to join a professional ballet company when she graduates next year.

"I know it's hard," Gibbs admits. "But there's something about performing, about being up there on that stage where you can express yourself, that makes me know that's what I want to do."

In addition to daily dance practice and rehearsals, Gibbs has to ++ spend hours on her schoolwork every night, plus juggle her part-time job at a restaurant catering business.

"Basically, if I want to have a social life, I have to cut into my sleeping time," she says.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Or: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Degas, a seminal figure of the Impressionist movement and self-proclaimed "painter of modern life," was fascinated by dancers and the theater. His oils, pastels and sketches of the ballet world brought him fame as an artist and shaped ideas about ballet as a realm of godlike grace and beauty that have persisted to the present day.

But "Little Dancer," the only sculpture the artist exhibited during his lifetime, shows another side of the dance -- the grueling regimen of practice, rehearsal and performance and the physical toll it takes an aspiring dancer.

And for all her work, there's still no guarantee a dancer will ever win the public's favor.

By all accounts, van Goethem's career as a dancer was undistinguished. She performed with the corps de ballet and never rose above sujet, or middle-ranking dancer, by the time she left the stage in 1914.

"There's a lot of auditioning, going around, looking for a company where you fit it," says Maeghan McHale, another senior dance major at the Baltimore School for the Arts, who, like Gibbs, hopes to dance professionally when she graduates.

"It takes a lot of work and dedication, and sometimes you just end up having to give up some things."

It also takes encouragement and understanding from family and friends.

McHale's mother is a nurse, her father a longshoreman, and she says she couldn't do what she has to in order to become a dancer without their backing.

"They keep telling me, what I want to do I can succeed at, that nothing can hold me back," she says. "They are very supportive."

For young ballerinas like Gibbs and McHale, dancing is not only the most important part of their life; in many ways, it defines who they are.

"Many of these girls have thought of themselves as dancers since they were 5 or 6 years old," says Baltimore School for the Arts principal Stanley Romanstein.

"The whole thing of being a ballet dancer is putting a dream at the forefront of your life," Romanstein says.

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