Kennedy Center plans Degas-inspired new musical, ‘Little Dancer’

You know it as the sculptural quintessence of grit, grace and love of ballet. Now see it as a musical.

Edgar Degas’ world-famous “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” is the inspiration for an original musical titled “Little Dancer,” to be produced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in October 2014, the institution announced Wednesday.

The show, written by the “Ragtime” team of book writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, and directed and choreographed by the Tony-winning Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) is the first new-from-the-ground-up musical the center will have financed and presented during the dozen-year tenure of President Michael M. Kaiser, and one of the few ventures of its kind in the center’s history. The hope, officials say, is that the six-week run in the Eisenhower Theater will lead to other productions, possibly even on Broadway.

Although no casting has been announced, the lead role of the girl, based on the 14-year-old student from the Paris Opera Ballet who posed for Degas more than 130 years ago, has been devised for a classical ballerina. (The show is to end with a ballet composed to Flaherty’s composition.) According to Ahrens and Flaherty’s Web site, New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck portrayed her during a workshop production last summer that was directed by Stroman.

“We love working with Ahrens and Flaherty,” said Kaiser, who revived their musical “Ragtime” in a 2009 production that moved to Broadway. “And Susan Stroman, how ideal. The material is what she excels in, and the subject matter makes sense for the Kennedy Center.”

“Little Dancer” will be a valedictory of sorts for Kaiser, who will depart as president at the end of December next year, about two months after the show premieres. “We are producing this alone, with hopes that it will have a life later,” he said, adding: “It’s incredibly exciting, and a little scary.”

Reached in Chicago, where she is working on “Big Fish,” a musical planned for Broadway this fall, Stroman described “Little Dancer” as exploring many themes that are meaningful to her; her dance musical “Contact” won the Tony for best musical in 2000. “It’s wonderful to bring classical ballet to musical theater, and it touches on the art world — everything that I love,” she said. “We did a reading and a workshop, and I enjoyed them both so much. And I think the Kennedy Center is the perfect place for it to go.”

In addition to the center’s extensive ballet programming, Washington is particularly relevant to “Little Dancer” because the yellow wax sculpture, with arms extended behind her and legs in modified fourth position, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art . Bronze casts of the sculpture exist in other major art museums.

Its creators say that “Little Dancer” will weave real history and fiction to tell the story of Marie van Goethem, the model Degas chose for what the National Gallery describes in its literature as the only sculpture that the impressionist artist displayed in public. The impulse to create a musical about the piece began, Ahrens said in a telephone interview, after she saw one of its bronze casts at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

“Everywhere you go, there are always girls having their pictures taken with it,” said Ahrens, whose encounter with the sculpture filled her with questions. “I just kept looking at her and saying, ‘Who were you, you tough little girl?’ ”

She delved into research and grew more intrigued. “When Marie was dancing, there were no child labor laws, and so it was a very dark and difficult world,” Ahrens said. “And yet, here was this shining spirit.” Discovering that the sculpture was not well-received by the critical establishment at the time, the lyricist found more depths for dramatic exploration.

“One of the interesting things for me is that the sculpture captures everything that is in between,” she said. “Between girlhood and adulthood; between ballet positions; a piece of art that exists between classical and modern.” Degas, of course, is an important character, too, and as Ahrens observed, Marie interested him purely as a subject. “He was a monk in art,” she said. “He had no romantic relationships with women that were ever written about. He’s obsessed with her in that he finds some spirit in her.”

For Flaherty, the music posed its own intellectual and physical challenges. “I was a classical pianist, and I had to get all of those muscles back,” he recalled. “I did get out my Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and all the romantic French composers, and just tried to find textures. I’ve tried to create what feels like an authentic world.”

The cast will number about two dozen, and Stroman said she’s looking strictly in the classical ballet world for her dancers. They’ll have to sing, too, but plies will be more important than high notes. “No one,” she said with a laugh, “is doing an 11 o’clock number on pointe.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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