This documentary on the Impressionist artist made Judge Amanda DeWees ponder the social relevance of the tutu.
"No serious artist had painted the dance before Degas. He soon made it into his specialty."
With the surge of popularity that Impressionist artists have seen in recent times, chances are you've seen the work of artists like Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh even if you haven't been able to identify the specific artist. With Degas, however, the chances of recognizing his work by subject alone are quite good, since over half of his artistic output took dancers as its subject matter. In Degas and the Dance, a fine documentary inspired by a new exhibition of Degas' dance-themed art, we gain insight into the special connection between Degas and his favorite subject matter while also learning about their context in 19th-century France.
Written and directed by Mischa Scorer, Degas and the Dance was inspired by the research of Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, who unearthed new information showing how much expertise in the dance Degas possessed. They were also able to confirm his eye for detail by matching up many of his works with specific productions by the Paris Opera ballet company. The documentary, narrated thoughtfully by actor Frank Langella, combines archival images, reenactments, and modern-day footage of dancers on the locations in which Degas would have seen them with unhurried, detailed examinations of specific works of art. The documentary follows Degas' life and work chronologically, effectively showing the progression of his style and intent.
Those who think of Degas as a painter of pretty pictures (a reputation that has inappropriately dogged Impressionist artists in recent years) will be surprised by much in this documentary. So far from idealizing or sentimentalizing dancers, Degas took pains to portray them not only during their graceful performances but during private moments of weariness and boredom. Indeed, so deglamorized are his paintings of dancers backstage and in rehearsal that in some circles Degas has gained a reputation for misogyny. The truth, not surprisingly, seems to lie somewhere between the two extremes. Although this documentary does not confront directly Degas' curmudgeonly reputation, it consistently shows us an artist so fascinated with the infinite variety of human movement that the idea of contempt toward his subject is nonsensical. In addition to allowing him to focus on the human body in motion, the ballet also provided a window into modern life, an opportunity to reveal "modern people going about their professional lives." In this respect, as well as many others, Degas was on the cutting edge of the art of his day.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Degas and the Dance is an excellent introduction to the unique talent of an important artist. Even those better versed in 19th-century art will appreciate the detailed, engrossing scrutiny of this documentary. The context in which Degas painted—and in which his subjects danced—is beautifully evoked, giving us a greater understanding of the world of the dancers, the conditions of their lives, and the way Degas observed and recreated them. One of the most interesting revelations to me was that although Degas' dance paintings seem to be completely spontaneous, capturing apparently fleeting moments, they were almost always created in Degas' studio, where he instructed his models to reenact carefully whatever movement or mood had captured his interest.
The disc includes an attractive assortment of extras. Most useful to those who want to learn more about how to "read" Degas' work is the Audio Tour, which lets the viewer choose any or all of nine different works, which are discussed in voice-over by Kendall or DeVonyar. This tour is essentially an art class in miniature, providing expert guidance to the important features of the specific paintings and drawings. It's an excellent idea, well executed. Also useful in fleshing out the information in the documentary is a timeline of Degas' life and career, which will cause squinting among those with standard-sized television sets due to a type size that is somewhat small for comfort. Similarly, in the "Overview" section we have text introductions to the two co-curators and director Scorer, as well as an overview of the documentary's subject, all nicely detailed but visually a bit of a strain.
I found the menus in general to be attractive but sometimes frustrating to navigate, often because it was difficult to tell which feature was being highlighted (or where the "return to main menu" option was hiding on a given screen). On the other hand, several of the bonus features include the very considerate plus of indicating how many pages there will be in total, so, for example, if we find ourselves on "page 2 of 5" of Degas' timeline and start feeling impatient, we know just how much reading lies ahead of us. Be warned, however, that the descriptions of bonus content on the disc insert are somewhat misleading, and the promised features often lurk under different, cryptic titles. The promised "demonstrations of 19th-century ballet poses by Paris Opera dancers in comparison to contemporary dance techniques" appear simply as "Paris Opera Dancers"—and this extra is less than two minutes long. Likewise, the promised Opera set maquettes (models) and archival images of dancers are glimpsed only briefly in the extra footage called "Paris Opera Library." The creator of the disc packaging can definitely be charged with exaggerating the content.
The documentary has an elegant visual style that uses color and lighting effectively to evoke the Paris of Degas' lifetime, although the video footage shows substantial grain in darker scenes. A musical score consisting largely of classical works from the time period is both appropriate and classy, if occasionally soporific. Overall this is a solid documentary and a worthwhile purchase for fans of the ballet or of 19th-century art.
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