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Classical and modern aesthetics in dance, as seen by Degas and the Dance Theatre of Harlem

As a form of dance, ballet is typically associated with delicate grace and refinement, especially for ballerinas. But the form and materiality of Degas' sculpture 'Little Dancer: Aged Fourteen' in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection exudes an almost rugged strength. That her skirt and hair ribbon are made of found fabric challenges the illusion of the bronze figure; the sculpture does not attempt to transcend its material, as traditional figurative sculpture often does. The visual weight of the bronze—especially in contrast to the light fabric of the skirt—grounds the figure in strength, rather than the weightlessness one might normally associate with ballet. Similarly, in a bronze cast study of a dancer nearby ('Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg'), Degas maintains the unrefined texture of the clay, capturing the nude figure's sensuality in gesture alone.

The pose of the 'Little Dancer' is at once childlike and quietly powerful: Her neck is craned forward, her shoulders pulled down, her elbows locked behind her back. The gesture is slightly gauche, but at the same time, she appears stoic.

In his sculptures, paintings, and pastel drawings of ballet dancers, Degas crossed classical beauty with modern, impressionist concepts of color and movement. At their performance at the Murphy Fine Arts Center last Saturday, the Dance Theatre of Harlem similarly challenged conventions in ballet, and not simply because of the ethnic and racial diversity of the company. Of the three ballets they performed, "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven (Odes to Love and Loss)" stood out as a particularly striking combination of modern and classical aesthetics.

In the piece, the six dancers wore white leotards, highlighting their powerful legs and chiseled muscles, like classical marble statues of gods, heroes, and nobility. With their legs spread and toes on pointe, the dancers began to tremble in unison, hands held, forming a single, monumental structure, shivering in its foundation. Throughout the piece the dancers moved individually around and in and out of spotlights, illuminating the otherwise-pitch-black stage, and stood together around the edge of the light. Partners puppeteered and guided each other across the stage, creating shifting power dynamics. Their movements drew new tempos out of the minimal score—filled with stretches of silence punctuated by ghostly bell tones—by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

When we spoke to the Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ballet Master Keith Saunders, a Baltimore native, he explained that the piece, choreographed by Ulysses Dove, is one of mourning, as the subtitle and haunting bell tones would suggest, and that the score was composed as a requiem to the English composer Benjamin Britten. The choreographer, who died of AIDs-related causes three years after the creation of the ballet, was himself dealing with overwhelming states of loss and grieving. While those emotions are poignantly communicated through the somber music and ritualistic circles, the dancers' movements and physical contact evoked a sense of power, however fragile, much like Degas' 'Little Dancer.'

You can see excerpts of "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven" performed by the Dance Theatre of Harlem here:

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