Edgar Degas left a legacy of Impressionist illusions exposing ballet dancers from the glittering creatures of the show and stage to backstage “little rats” (les petit rats) with no context of their ornamental, bourgeois audience. By shifting those environments, Degas’ ballerinas were shown in raw realities, often as penniless athletes and as the wealthy’s visual and sexual playthings. Through the photography and production of Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, NYC Dance Project and Harper’s Bazaar has transformed American Ballet Theatre‘s principal dancer Misty Copeland into a real life Degas ballerina in more ways than one.
With a fairytale ending to her impoverished upbringing, Copeland’s natural inclinations for dance were recognized early and developed fully despite her childhood struggles. Rooted in survival, Copeland lends her inherent strength to her career and these photographs as not just a dancer but an individual—bringing us a convincing sense of strength and control in her poses. Wrapped in the likes of Carolina Herrera and Alexander McQueen, she remarkably emotes Degas’ fateful dancers with illusive effortlessness.
The most poignant reproduction of this series is that of Degas’ La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). The sculpture, modeled from dancer Marie van Goethem, created an uproar in the 19th century art world that considered its appearance purposefully ugly and found its youth, tense pose and ordinariness vulgar. As opposed to glorified marble sculptures of goddesses, this commonplace figure made of beeswax (and a very progressive use of found objects) expressed even pain and strain in her face—human indications of the labor behind her craft. Copeland’s grace in her poise and pointe in this photograph brings a nobility to the then controversial piece, lifting the historical, contextual question of its propriety.
Degas’ subjects simultaneously mock the bourgeoisie and their nouveau riche fascinations but also cater to them—appropriately depicting superficiality balanced with sincerity. Misty Copeland‘s stirring dose of honest contemporary problems resolved through a dream that brought us her infectious desire for dance makes subtle the bleak truths of Degas’ ballerinas. This re-creation series from Harper’s Bazaar brings us, at once, a reflection of the past and an existential rendering of a transient present.