Few dancers are given the opportunity to bring an iconic piece of artwork to life, never mind when they’re just 25 years old. However, Tiler Peck, a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, is doing just that as she stars in the new Little Dancer musical, which is based off the amazing 17th-century sculpture by Edgar Degas. The show, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is playing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 30, 2014.
‘Little Dancer Age Fourteen’
In 1878, Edgar Degas began his iconic wax sculpture, “Little Dancer Age Fourteen,” based on the young ballerina Marie van Goethem. Degas began painting dancers after becoming fascinated by the backstage life of the Paris Opera. His work culminated with a diminutive wax dancer who’s dressed in a tutu and slippers and adorned with real human hair.
Artnet Magazine explained that the piece was met with mixed reviews by Degas’s peers, as it was unprecedented to use non-art materials in sculpture. However, the statute and its model, the young Goethem, have inspired dancers and artists since, including Lynn Ahrens, the playwright behind the new musical.
“I began to see a story emerging about an artist who was beginning to go blind, who was frightened that he was losing his power to paint,” Ahrens explained to NPR. “Into his life, somehow, walks a little girl who inspires him in some way, because she is such an urchin, such a spirit and a stubborn soul, and he begins to sketch her and suddenly decides that he wants to sculpt.”
Ahrens shaped the Little Dancer musical into a show that explores Goethem’s relationship with Degas as it relates to the struggle of young women in Paris at the time. The young ballerina was born into poverty but worked hard to secure a spot with the Paris Ballet company.
Tiler Peck as Goethem
Tiler Peck was cast to play the young ballerina, opposite actor Boyd Gaines as Degas. According to the NYC Ballet, Peck has been dancing since she was 7. She joined the School of American Ballet at age 12 and became an apprentice with the company just four years later. Outside the Lincoln Center, Peck has also performed in “The Music Man” on Broadway, danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and starred in several major films. It’s an impressive resume for a dancer whose career has just begun.
According the Associated Press, Peck is just as dedicated to this musical as she has been to her previous projects. She’s visited the sculpture, which is located at the National Gallery of Art, a number of times to get in character.
“I want to make sure I get it as perfectly as possible and to be as true to the sculpture as I can,” Peck told the AP. “To be able to see exactly how her hands are clasped and what her hair looked like, where the ribbon was placed.”
Peck described the role as “emotionally exhausting,” as Goethem struggled to overcome many barriers before she made it as a ballerina. Looking at the dancer’s back story, it’s no wonder that Degas was inspired to immortalize her.
If you’re located in the District of Columbia or a nearby state, your dancers might enjoy the opportunity to see Peck bring the Little Dancer musical to life. If you can’t make the play, the National Gallery of Art is hosting an exhibition featuring the original statue and a number of related pieces through Jan. 11, 2015.
Images of Tiler Peck in the role of the Kennedy Center’s “Little Dancer” by Matthew Karas. Used with permission.
The conclusion of “La Sonnambula” by the New York City Ballet on Oct. 18, 2014, was much more than your average closing night. It was also the farewell performance of Wendy Whelan, an awe-inspiring ballerina who danced with the company for 30 years. However, Whelan’s departure from the NYC Ballet is by no means the end of her career, but it does bring to light the struggles that professional dancers face after retirement.
The Rise of a Star
Wendy Whelan, who was born and raised in Kentucky, began training as a professional ballerina at age 8. Her first performance was as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s production of the beloved classic, “The Nutcracker.” Her modest start is proof to all dance students that no one immediately puts on pointe shoes and steps into the limelight. It’s a journey that relies on hard work and dedication.
In 1981, Whelan got her big break when she received a scholarship to attend a summer course at the School of American Ballet. Within a year, she was a full-time student at the school, and in 1984, Whelan became an apprentice with the NYC Ballet. Slowly, but surely, she climbed through the company’s ranks. She achieved the title of principal dancer during the 1991 spring season.
During her career, Whelan performed as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and the Maryinsky Ballet. She also originated several roles in pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and more.
Life After Ballet
Unfortunately, Whelan sustained a serious injury in the fall of 2012, when she was 44 years old. According to The Atlantic magazine, she pulled her hamstring and a few months later discovered she had a labral tear in her hip. It took many months for the ballerina to recuperate and led to her eventual decision to retire from the company that had been her home for so many years.
As is the case with many professional dancers, Whelan began to worry about her financial security a few months before her farewell performance.
“We’re not supported federally at all once we leave the ballet,” Whelan told The Atlantic in March 2014. “There is no support whatsoever, financially or insurance wise for dancers in the United States.”
Dancers begin training at such a young age that their education is often put on the back burner. When they retire, usually between age 30 and 40, they have to re-enter the working world, often without a college degree or significant work experience.
Whelan told The Atlantic that she was considering becoming a dance teacher, but it looks like dance students will have to wait a few more years before learning from the legend. The NYC Ballet reports that Whelan has been appointed Artistic Associate at the New York’s City Center for the next two years. She is working with Edward Watson, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, to develop a program that will premiere in London during the summer of 2015. The collaboration will debut in New York in 2016.
A Lesson for Students
Wendy Whelan’s story, and that of many other professional dancers, brings to light the struggle of transitioning from life on stage to that in the working world. A study from the aDvANCE Project sound that most dancers expect to perform into their 40s, but on average retire in their mid-30s. Further, 98 percent of current dancers claim they are aware of the challenges they’ll face once their career is over, but former dancers admit they weren’t prepared for the transition. Teachers molding the next generation of Wendy Whelan’s might add a little bit of reality to their lessons. Dance students should be educated about the realistic longevity of a professional career and the importance of an education in their life post-dance.
If you’re looking for a inspiring story to share with your dance students, look no further than that of Misty Copeland. The professional ballerina has gained a lot of attention in the past year, thanks to her lead role in “Swan Lake” and her powerful advertisement for Under Armour. Her story is one of determination and overcoming adversity and can be a fun teaching tool for young dancers.
‘I Will What I Want’
The world of professional dance, along with many other artistic and athletic professions, is brutally competitive and often harsh on young hopefuls. Copeland didn’t start training as a ballerina until she was 13 years old and faced a lot of rejection in her climb to the top. Her story is a great example for young athletes, as it shows that just because one coach or director tells you “no,” you can still be successful if you put your mind to it.
Copeland’s story became a viral sensation when Under Armour featured her in an advertisement. The video, which has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, features Copeland dancing while a rejection letter she received as a young dancer is read out loud. Copeland believes that the ad resounded with so many viewers because it addresses common experiences of rejection and perseverance.
“I think so many people can relate to it – not just as a dancer within the ballet world, but just feeling different, feeling like you don’t fit in,” Copeland told the TODAY show.
According to Copeland’s website, she overcame the obstacles that stood in her way and made history in 2007 as the first African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in two decades. Dance instructors can use the Under Armour video and information from Copeland’s website to start a conversation about goals, hard work and adversity with their students.
Copeland in Print
If you want to assign your dancers a little homework, Copeland has not one, but two books about her journey as an artist. Her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” is a great read for older students. In it, she talks about growing up with five siblings in a poor household, how she got into dance and what the different struggles have been throughout her career. She also describes her career-defining performances, like working with music artist Prince and as the first African-American woman to star in “Firebird.”
“[Playing the Firebird] was one of the first really big principal roles I was ever given an opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theatre,” Copeland told NPR. “It was a huge step for the African-American community.”
This role was the inspiration for Copeland’s new children’s book, “Firebird.” The story is filled with bright, colorful illustrations that make it perfect for a class of young dancers. It addresses common issues like confidence and self-doubt. The moral of the story is that with hard work and self-assurance, young dancers can achieve any goals they set. The picture book could easily be used to calm novice students before their first big performance!
Continuing Her Growth
While Copeland is performing in Australia as the the lead in “Swan Lake,” the people in Hollywood are planning to spread her message even further. Deadline reported that filmmakers at New Line Cinema are considering making a movie based on Copeland’s memoir. The film would focus on her early years as a dancer and the struggles she faced. Copeland is definitely a star that dance professionals should keep an eye on – her story and message are both powerful teaching tools that can inspire young dancers!