Suggested Answers to Discussion Questions for
Learning Guide to DEGAS AND THE DANCER
1. [Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film]. [No suggested Answers.]
2. What aspect of people or animals fascinated Degas? Suggested Response: There are several possible good answers: movement; everyday life; dancers.
3. Degas was interested in both ballet dancers and race horses. What do they have in common? Suggested Response: They are both examples of grace in movement. Degas once wrote, "A horse walks on its toes. Four hoofs, like toenails, support it. No animal is closer to a "premiére danseuse," a star of the corps de ballet, than a perfectly balanced thoroughbred, as it seems to pause in flight under the hand of its rider, and then trips forward in the bright sunshine." (From Degas by Eduard Hüttinger, pages 58 & 59.)
4. What did Degas mean when he said that it was a dancer's concentration that made her beautiful? Suggested Response: A person focusing completely on something that she loves has a tendency to be beautiful.
5. One of the great challenges of art, especially performance art such as ballet, is to make something that is very difficult seem effortless. How is this achieved? Suggested Response: The Degas character told us that: "It takes great effort to make it seem effortless. You have to practice and practice and you have to believe in yourself."
6. Zoe, Degas' housekeeper in the movie, told Marie that, "The very time he needs people is when he pushes them away. ... He wants to apologize but he's too proud." Have you seen someone act this way? Tell us what happened.Suggested Response: There is no one correct response.
Questions Concerning "The Dance Class"
7. The large ornate doorway at the back of the room is the strongest architectural element in the painting. Its form is echoed by something else in the painting. Describe what that is and how it affects the painting. Suggested Response: The shape of the large doorway is echoed by Mssr. Perrot's stance. His staff and his body form the sides and top of a smaller arch. The effect of this is to accentuate his authority. He is, after all, the teacher.
8. What role does the large doorway in the back play in this painting? Suggested Response: It emphasizes the dancer in the center, the only person shown in a formal pose ready to dance. Because the stance of the teacher echoes the shape of the door, it emphasizes his authority.
9. Why did Degas have the girl at the left scratch her back in an undignified and ungainly pose? Suggested Response: This humanizes an otherwise formal painting. It's actually almost funny.
10. The Quick Discussion Question also relates to this painting.
Questions Concerning "The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans"
11. How do the colors used in this painting serve the impression Degas was trying to achieve? Suggested Response: Browns, muted greens and creamy whites contribute to the concept that this is just ordinary daily life.
12. "The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans" is a group portrait of a number of Degas' relatives. The man in the foreground testing cotton is his uncle. The man at the left, learning on the partition, is Degas' brother, and another relative is shown reading the paper at the center of the picture. There is something that, for its time, was new and innovative about this group portrait. What is it? Suggested Response: It appears that the painting is merely a scene in an office. The men are shown in their everyday activities and do not appear to be the primary subjects of the picture. Their images do not even acknowledge that their portrait is being painted.
13. Is there one focus in this picture? Suggested Response: No. The uncle is in the front center, but he is concentrating on the cotton, oblivious to all around him. The only other thing that draws our eye to him are the legs of the man reading the paper. The line of windows draws our attention to the back of the room, but there is nothing there of interest and the eye comes back to the white table of cotton and the men examining it. The most vivid detail is the wastebasket with its discarded tickets on the lower right. That draws our eyes past the man reading the paper to the clerk standing at the left. There are several isolated and separate centers of activity among the men at the table of cotton, the uncle examining cotton in the foreground, the relative reading the paper, the two men immediately behind the newspaper reader, and the clerks at the right performing their tasks. All of this is observed, laconically, by the figure of Degas' brother at the left, relaxing against the partition.
Questions Concerning "L'Etoile"
14. How does Degas show that the central figure in this painting is moving? Suggested Response: She is off balance, so if she weren't moving, she'd be falling. But she is focused on what she is doing with a look of exaltation on her face, so she obviously isn't falling. Another indication of movement is that her skirt is swirling around her, moving a different way than her body, which is what skirts do when the person inside of them twirls.
TALENT AND AMBITION
1. At one point in this film, Degas doesn't take his own advice about something. What is it? Suggested Response: Believing in himself and his talent.
2. What did both Degas and Marie have to overcome, as shown in the movie? Suggested Response: Self-doubt
3. The Degas character tells us: "I paint things ten times, a hundred times, before I get it right. It has to be the same with dance ... I never get it right the first time. Making mistakes is how we learn. " Have you ever seen an example of this in your life or in the lives of people that you know? Tell us what happened. No suggested response.
4. At one point in the film, Degas said that "Accepting criticism is part of being an artist." At another point he said that "All critics are imbeciles." Later he said, "Its very hard to ignore people's reactions and remain true to your own beliefs." Can you reconcile all these statements? Suggested Response: The trick is to listen to criticism, take what's good out of it, and ignore the rest. What's good in criticism is that which helps you to improve and at the same time remain true to your own vision.
5. The Degas character in this film said, "Everyone in this life will try to take your dreams away from you. Only you can see them through. You're on your own with them. You have to hold them tightly in your heart even when giving up would be the easiest thing to do." Can you give an example of someone following their dreams? Tell us what happened to them. No suggested response.
6. The character of Mssr. Perrot said two things that appear to contradict each other. First he told the class, after Pauline had demonstrated the combination, that "There, that's what happens when you work. There is no magic to it. Just work." Then, after the audition, he told the class, "Dance is not just getting the steps right. It is something freer." Can you reconcile these statements? Suggested Response: Yes. The first is about technical proficiency and the second is about dance as a whole. Technical proficiency is required for great dancing and comes from hard work. Great dancing occurs when the technique is mastered and the dancer also expresses the soul of the music and the choreography.
7. The Degas character said that "Self-doubt is an insidious enemy. It can kill your talent. Remember never to give in to it." Have you seen the destructive powers of self-doubt in action? Tell us what happened. No suggested response.
SISTERS - MOTHER/DAUGHTER
8. Marie's fictional sister Pauline was no friend to Marie. Do you know sisters who feel this way about their siblings? What do you think about that?Suggested Response: Hatred between siblings is a great loss because there is so much positive love and caring that could be shared between them.
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
1. The character of Degas shown in this film treated several people pretty badly at times, including Mr. Halévy, Degas' housekeeper and, at times, Marie. They tolerated it because they had a great respect for his talent. What do you think about this? Suggested Response: The Degas character in the film was wrong to treat people in this manner. Having talent is no excuse for abusing people. In this way the character in the film was not respectful of the people that he abused.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
2. Was Pauline justified in planning to get her own apartment as soon as she got a job or should she have stayed with her mother and contributed her earnings to help support the family? Suggested Response: Pauline should have remained at home and contributed, but only for a period of time. Her mother's life was too hard and her mother had sacrificed so much for Pauline that is was not right for Pauline to just up and leave as soon as she got a job. However, Pauline was not chained to the family forever. She had her own life to lead. See The Glass Menagerie. It was her action in secretly planning to leave while her mother scrimped and sacrificed for her and that she intended to leave immediately upon getting a job which were appalling.
3. What did Degas mean when he said that no queen could be as noble as a laundress ironing? Suggested Response: A person doing useful work is more beautiful than a queen who does nothing even though the queen may be dressed in rich clothing and jewelry. Degas also saw beauty in people absorbed in their tasks.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
4. In the film, the Degas character honors this Pillar for one person. Who is it and why is that refreshing? Suggested Response: For all of the faults of the Degas character in the film, he did care about Marie. It is refreshing for a great man to be shown caring about a little girl who is no more than a "ballet rat."
Last updated December 27, 2007.
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