'Marie in Fourth Position'


August 15, 1999|By Amy Littlesugar

Editor's note: An awkward young ballerina inspires the formidable artist Edgar Degas to greatness as she poses for his statue 'The Little Dancer.'

Monsieur Degas met Marie at the door. Gently, he took her fingers and led her to the modeling stand.

"Ma fille," he said, "the pastel is like the powder on a butterfly's wing ... and you are the butterfly!"

Marie took a deep breath and climbed once more into the same pose.

"Look up," said Monsieur Degas.

"Higher. Higher! As though you wish to fly!"

Marie tried. Oh, how hard she tried.

"Imagine," said Monsieur Degas, "a flower cart outside the Place de l'Opera. It is filled with roses. The sweetest roses!"

Marie closed her eyes. She was a soft yellow butterfly visiting many flowers.

Stretching, stretching, stretching, she clasped her hands behind her back. Her right foot slid firmly into place.

"That is it," said Monsieur Degas. "Do not move!"

At once he seized his chalks and began drawing at a dizzying speed. Sheet upon sheet of colored paper flew about the studio. His chalks became worn down to no more than stubs. But Monsieur Degas was an artist capturing a living moment. He could not let go. With one last burst of color, the chalks streaked across the apple-green paper, marking just the right wrinkle in Marie's stocking.

Finally, Monsieur Degas put down his chalk.

"Bien," he said, quietly. His eye caught a faded dancer's bouquet on the window-sill. One last bloom strained toward the light.

This he offered to Marie.

"Dance," he told her. "Love only that. Let dancing be your life."

Over and over he drew her in this same perfect pose: what the ballerinas called the Fourth Position. But Marie never tired. She was too busy listening to what his chalks asked of her. The slightest turn of her head, the twist of one slipper, made Monsieur Degas say, "La Belle Marie!"

Then one day, Madame Housekeeper did not come for Marie. Nor the next. Although she wondered why, Marie's mother told her she must not think about it.

Instead, she put her mind to her ballet practice at the Opera. There everyone took notice.

At the barre, her plies were perfect every time. She even caught the eye of the old dance master.

Monsieur Degas was very busy in his studio.

Gathering together all the drawings he had made of Marie, he decided to make a sculpture from them.

Fingerprint over fingerprint, he modeled it out of wax that he tinted to the color of Marie's skin. It became the size of a large doll. It was almost living. But not quite.

Monsieur Degas put on his top hat and strolled down a boulevard with an address in his vest pocket.

From one Madame Cusset, a maker of doll's hair, he purchased what he needed. Then he bought a linen singlet, a gauzy skirt, and a pair of satin dance slippers.

He dressed "The Little Dancer," as he called it.

In April, Monsieur Degas entered this sculpture in the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881. He was not sure how it would be accepted -- "The Little Dancer" was nothing like the smooth marble figures the world was accustomed to. Still, he had to find out.

So it was placed in a glass case all its own, like a jewel from some ancient culture.

It made Paris whisper! Monocles were raised and newspapers buzzed!

None of that mattered to Monsieur Degas. Marie had given him a magnificent pose, and he could ask for nothing more.

From MARIE IN FOURTH POSITION by Amy Littlesugar. Text Copyright c 1996 by Amy Littlesugar. Illustrations c 1996 by Ian Schoenherr. Reprinted by permission of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

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