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New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck on ‘Little Dancer,’ and the ballerina’s fighting spirit

“The Little Dancer,” a sculpture by French artist Edgar Degas, is on display at the National Gallery of Art's East Building. The piece was inspired by Marie von Goethem. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

By necessity, ballerinas are perfectionists. So when it comes to turning herself into one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Tiler Peck has a sharp eye for detail.

Peck, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, will star in the new musical “Little Dancer,” which premieres at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 25. The musical tells the story of Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the dirt-poor laundress’s daughter and ballet student who became the model for the artist’s tough-looking, tutu-clad figure, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”

The day of the show’s publicity photo shoot, Marie’s costume hung on a rack. The skirt and its slim, gold-toned bodice were created by the show’s multiple Tony-winning costume designer, William Ivey Long, and no aspect of its resemblance to the world-renowned artwork had been overlooked.

But for Peck, all of its authenticity and beauty came down to one tiny feature. It’s one that no audience member would ever notice, but which Long (also a stickler) included anyway.

“It’s amazing,” Peck said, speaking by phone from Vail, Colo., where she is performing at the Vail International Dance Festival. “Down to the point where one of the buttons is only partially through. It’s not buttoned all the way. Every single detail is there.

Tiler Peck will star in the Kennedy Center's new musical inspired by Edgar Degas’ sculpture, "Little Dancer." (Matthew Karas/© Matt Karas)

“And then when they put the bangs on me and I looked in the mirror, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ”

Marie’s famous pose, that stepping-forward, slight contrapposto stance, has drawn praise and derision from the public since Degas unveiled his work, in 1881. Plenty of his contemporaries thought the girl was an abomination. Male ballet subscribers were known to haunt the Paris Opera’s hallways to secure the affections of such girls and become their (wink, wink) “protectors.” For many Parisians, Marie’s relaxed, open posture wasn’t high art; it was evidence of a low life. She wasn’t just a “petit rat,” as the youngest dancers were called, she was a gutter-rat, just a few years short of harlotry. If she wasn’t there already.

With her strong jaw and confidently bared breastbone, Degas’s “Little Dancer” statuette, which is now enshrined at the National Gallery of Art, absolutely does not care what we think. Yet her mystique has only grown. Who was that girl, really? And who was she to Degas?

These questions fuel the musical, which is reportedly part fact, part fantasy. Rehearsals haven’t yet started, but Peck has been reading up on the artwork, and has formulated some answers of her own.

“There’s so much power in her stance,” she says. “I think that says a lot about her character. Her character has a really strong backbone; she’s a fighter. She’s had to fight all her life to make it.”

Peck notes that the dancer is not standing in a classical ballet position, and that Degas caught her off-guard, lost in thought. It’s a refreshing view.

“Ballet is such an untouchable art form,” Peck says. “We’re always seen from the stage, and you’re always expected to be on top of your game. But I feel like she’s showing the human beingness of being a ballerina. Those times when we’re on a break or we’re resting. We all have our own positions that we fall into.”

In this behind-the-scenes video, New York City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck poses for promotional photos for The Kennedy Center's "Little Dancer." A new musical, "Little Dancer" is inspired by Edgar Degas's "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" sculpture and will play at the Kennedy Center from October 25 to November 30, 2014. (Kennedy Center)

The new musical is merely the latest profile-raising event in Peck’s life. She first worked with Susan Stroman, director and choreographer of “Little Dancer,” in 2000, when she played the child Gracie Shinn in Stroman’s revival of “The Music Man” on Broadway. Originally from Bakersfield, Calif., where her mother ran a dance school, Peck was encouraged by Stroman to apply to the School of American Ballet, the training arm of the New York City Ballet.

Once she progressed from the school to the company, Peck rose rapidly to become one of the leading ballerinas, prized for her fearless versatility, theatrical imagination and musicality. Even in her “off” summer months she’s game for new roles. She described with giggly delight how at Vail she debuted in the “Rubies” section of George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” and will also star in her first “Don Quixote.”

Another new role: In June, Peck married fellow City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild.

Yet if her life is vastly different from that of the 19th-century Parisian teen she will soon portray, there are key similarities. For one, Peck recognizes the pressure — however subtle it may be, nowadays — of pleasing those who fund the art.

“A lot of things went on back then, where you’d never get away with it now,” Peck says. “Getting ballerinas to mix with what they called the abonnes, which we’d call donors today. Forcing young ballerinas to schmooze with them. And if anything happened between them, [management] would look the other way. They just wanted to bring in money for the company.

“Obviously, things like that don’t happen today,” she continues. “But we do have donors and we do go to cocktail parties. It’s not that far removed. So I can definitely imagine what that must’ve been like.”

But Marie set herself apart. Forever.

“The thing that’s important to remember about Marie is she’s not like the other dancers,” Peck says. “She’s never been one to follow the rules. From the moment she’s onstage, she doesn’t dance like the other girls. She’s just got something special about her, and that’s what I’m going to try to bring to the character.”



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