Explore Washington D.C.

D.C.’s “Little Dancer” Goes Big Time

A famed Degas sculpture stars both in the gallery and on stage.

The fate of Marie van Goethem, once a young dancer (or “petit rat”) at the Paris Opera Ballet, has been lost to the centuries. But her spirit survives in the confident stance of “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Edgar Degas. The sculpture, once controversial, now claims the spotlight.

In the Gallery

Part of the National Gallery of Art permanent collection thanks to philanthropist Paul Mellon, the statuette with shoulders pulled back and head held high has captivated museumgoers for years. Through January 11, it’s the centerpiece of an intimate exhibition that includes paintings, prints and pastels showcasing Degas’ fascination with the sometimes seedy world of 19th-century ballet.

When Degas himself exhibited the sculpture in 1881, critics called it “repulsive” and “a threat to society” because of the subject—a working-class girl in a risqué profession—and the materials—pigmented wax adorned with a cotton-silk tutu, linen slippers and a wig of human hair. Recent radiographs revealed her strange innards of cork, wood, rope and even old paintbrushes, likely the artist’s studio detritus. While more than 30 posthumous bronze casts of “Little Dancer” grace museums worldwide, this wax original is the only one shaped by Degas’ hands. His other works displayed here include “Study in the Nude of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and “The Dance Lesson.”

The Dance Lesson
“The Dance Lesson” by Degas (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon)

Paying tribute to the birthplace of Degas and his “Little Dancer,” NGA’s elegant Garden Café goes Gallic with a menu designed by award-winning chef Michel Richard. The daily buffet ($20.75), with complimentary recipe cards, includes seasonal dishes like arugula with roasted beets, apples, pecans and champagne vinaigrette, pumpkin bisque, braised Cornish game hen and crème brulée with fresh berries. To sip? A champagne-gin cocktail, Kronenbourg beer and, bien sur, French wine.

On Stage

The ballerina forever stilled in wax now has a living, breathing, twirling counterpart at the Kennedy Center. Through November 30, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck stars as the young Marie van Goethem in a new buzzed-about, fact-meets-fiction musical. In “Little Dancer,” a middle-aged Marie, played by Rebecca Luker, remembers her turbulent past at the Paris Opera Ballet. The theatrical dream team includes writer Lynn Ahrens, choreographer Susan Stroman, composer Stephen Flaherty and actor Boyd Gaines as Edgar Degas.

Tiler Peck
Tiler Peck in “Little Dancer” (Matthew Karas, Courtesy Kennedy Center)

Around Town

A supple grace seems to permeate the city, as dancers glide across stages and inspire gallery shows in expected and unlikely places. At the Kennedy Center alone, there’s “Little Dancer” plus Israel’s contemporary Batsheva Dance Company (November 18-19) and the Balanchine-focused Suzanne Farrell Ballet (November 28-30). Balletomanes or not, visitors may just find a spring in their step.

Dance Place

An anchor of the emerging Brookland neighborhood, this small but prolific studio-theater showcases a different troupe, from modern to hip hop, nearly every weekend. A recent $4 million rehab brought comfy seats and a dramatic glass tower.

GMU Center for the Arts

Martha Graham Dance Company takes the stage of this Fairfax, Virginia, venue November 7 for a program that includes “Appalachian Spring Suite” with narration from letters between the pioneering choreographer and the composer Aaron Copland.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company
Sarah Halzack and Kelly Southall (Jeff Watts, Courtesy Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company)

Korean Cultural Center

Choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess calls D.C. home, but his mother’s family immigrated from Korea. In “Ancestry-Artistry-Choreography,” paintings, video and photos document his multicultural background and its influence on his ballet-meets-contemporary work (through November 30). His company, a State Department cultural envoy, dances at the opening reception November 7.

Library of Congress

In the Performing Arts Reading Room through January 24, “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years” tracks the development of a new American style of classical dance. The 43 artifacts, many from the recently acquired ABT archive, include sketches, posters, film clips and photos from John Kriza in “Billy the Kid” (1940) to Misty Copeland in “Firebird” (2013).

The Phillips Collection

The permanent holdings of this modern art museum include Degas’ “Dancers at the Barre,” which founder Duncan Phillips called “a daring record of instantaneous change at a split second of observation.” On November 20, current exhibition “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” (through January 11) inspires a performance by CityDance School and Conservatory.