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    LEARNING GUIDE TO:

    DEGAS AND THE DANCER

    SUBJECTS — Visual Arts; World/France; Dance;
    SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Talent; Ambition; Mother/Daughter;
            Sisters;
    MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Responsibility; Caring.

    Age: 8 - 13; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 55 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.


    Description:     The time is the late 19th century. A friend brings Edgar Degas to the ballet school of the Paris Opéra to make sketches for a book. Degas, initially skeptical, becomes fascinated with drawing and painting the young dancers. Later, he hires one to be a model. As the movie unfolds, both she and Degas suffer a crisis of confidence, doubting their talent. Through their friendship they help each other to overcome their fears and continue, in her case to dance, and in his case to paint.

    This movie is one of the award winning Artists' Specials from Devine Entertainment. Intended for children 8 - 13, the film is so delightful and engaging that children of all ages and adults can enjoy it.


    Benefits of the Movie:          "Degas and the Dancer" introduces Edgar Degas, his interest in painting ballerinas, and his art. Through the course of the movie we are shown many of Degas' paintings and, at the culmination, the only statue he ever exhibited to the public, "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer." The film contains several lessons in social-emotional learning. The featured child character is a fictional version of Marie van Goethem, the young ballet student who served as Degas' model for the statue.


    Possible Problems:    MINOR. Marie seems to triumph because of her natural talent. The hard work necessary to develop talent in a ballet dancer is not clearly shown.



    The Dance Class, c. 1873 - 76, Oil on Canvas




 









LEARNING GUIDE MENU
Benefits of the Movie
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Selected Awards & Cast
Helpful Background
Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
Assignments, Projects & Activities
Bibliography


WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.





QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:   One would think that a painting of a cotton exchange in New Orleans would be very different from a painting of a ballet class in Paris. Can you find any similarities between "The Dance Class" (down and to the left) and "The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans"?

Suggested Response: The similarities in structure are striking. Both compositions consist of many individuals or sets of individuals absorbed in their own tasks or activities with their attention and the energy of their bodies going in different directions. Both have a wall on the left which is a dominant component of the structure of the painting and which stretches across most of the canvas toward the vanishing point. The floors in both paintings are out of perspective. The vanishing point in both paintings is right of center. The placement of the major figures are similar. In both paintings, there is a large figure in the foreground just to the left of center and a smaller figure in the approximate center of the painting, the ballerina just beneath the archway and the man reading the newspaper. The lines of sight and the flow of energy lead our attention to these figures. In both paintings, one figure is surveying the scene while relaxing (the girl scratching her back and the man leaning against the wall). Both paintings show strong vertical architectural elements which enlarge the sense of the space in the room.


    Parenting Points:     Tell your child that in addition to Mr. Degas, at least three people in the movie are based on real life characters. They are Marie, Jules Perrot (the dancing master), and Ludovic Halévy (the author). We don't know the historical accuracy of the interactions among these people but a young girl named Marie Van Goethem was the model for the statue called "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer". She danced for several years in the Paris Opéra's corps de ballet. Mr. Perrot taught the dance classes that Mr. Degas sketched and the men knew each other. Mr. Halévy commissioned sketches from Degas for a book. For more about the history of Mr. Degas, Marie, and Mr. Perrot, see the Helpful Background section.

    Mr. Degas went on to become a great artist. He was interested in movement, which is one reason why he liked to paint dancers and horses. Show your child the paintings in the Learning Guide. Ask and help him or her answer the Quick Discussion Question. Tell your child that the statue of this little girl changed the course of sculpture. Sculptors started making statues of normal people in actions of every day life. They no longer felt limited to famous people or heroic figures from mythology.
 
Three Dancers Resting, c. 1880, Chalk and Pastel
 








This painting is so fresh and modern that it could have been painted yesterday.


    Helpful Background:

    Edgar Degas (1834-1917) started as a classical painter, studying under a leading proponent of academic orthodoxy and taking trips to Italy to study the masters. He received early recognition for his work. However, while still revering the work of the masters, Degas moved beyond the accepted forms of classical painting to became one of the most innovative artists in the world. Degas' paintings helped destroy the old order in art, both in form and style. His attention to the commonplace, displaying both its beauty and its ugliness, pioneered new subjects for artists.

    Degas exhibited with a group of dissident painters who called themselves "the Independents." They were ridiculed by their critics as "Impressionists." That name is now universally used to describe these artists, but it is now a term of praise. While Degas has been classified as both an "Impressionist" and a "Post-Impressionist," he doesn't neatly fit into any particular stylistic group. His paintings and technique were his own and quite different from his fellow exhibitors. Where an "Impressionist" focused on light and rendered the impression a scene made upon the eye as seen on first view, Degas was fascinated with movement and carefully constructed his scenes of people and horses to display the figures and forms which interested him.

    Degas habitually made multiple sketches of what he wanted to portray, experimenting and trying for different effects. He said, "There is no art less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters. I do not know the meaning of such words as inspiration, spontaneity, and artistic temperament. ... It is essential to do the same subject again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem to be chance -- not even movement."(From Degas by Eduard Hüttinger, page 61.)

    Woman Ironing, c. 1876-1887
    oil on canvas,
    Degas usually portrayed anonymous people in a movement characteristic of their situation or occupation. His subjects are not heroic figures of history or myth, expected from painters when he began his career. Instead, he drew and painted dancers, race horses, musicians, laundresses, and milliners. The following incident is instructive of his attitude. Degas and a friend were going to an appointment. The friend suggested that they take a cab. Degas demurred, saying "Personally, I don't like cabs. You don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we?"

    Degas' fascination with movement characterizes much of his work. He said, "It is the movement of people and things that distracts and even consoles me. If the leaves of the trees did not move, how sad the trees would be and we, too."

    In his mid-40s, Degas shifted from somber tones painted in oil to bright colors, often drawn with pastels. For the next 30 years he painted primarily with pastel, combining it with other media: gouache, watercolor, oils mixed with turpentine, and monotypes. With each combination he repeated different effects, Degas sometimes superimposed layers of pigment on each other, each layer separately coated with a fixative. Degas was the only 19th century painter to make pastel his medium of choice.

    "The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans" shows the somber tones that Degas employed in his classical period. (His family had extensive business interests in France, Italy, and the United States. For several months in 1873, Degas stayed with relatives in New Orleans. This painting is one of the few he produced during that stay.) The lines of this painting are tight and precise, so much so that the overall impression is clearer and more striking than a photograph. This painting also shows Degas breaking away from the classical tradition in certain ways. The perspective is unusual. The floor moves upward at an unrealistic angle. The chairs are drawn out of perspective as are the legs of the figure in the center. The activities and even a portion of the bodies of the figures on the right and in the foreground are cutoff abruptly.

    The painting appears to be a scene of anonymous individuals in what could be almost any office. But "The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans" is actually a group portrait of members of Degas' family. The figure in the foreground testing cotton is his uncle. Another relative is shown as the man reading the newspaper. Degas' brother is at the left leaning on the frame of the partition. Unlike portraits in the classical tradition, none of the figures in the painting are striking a pose nor do they appear to be aware that they're being painted. Instead, they are shown going about their business, not interacting with the people around them unless required to do so by their tasks. To go back up to the image of "The Dance Class", click here.
    The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans, 1873, Oil on Canvas

    Set out below is a perceptive quote from a catalogue of a recent Degas exhibition:
    Though Degas exhibited his work with the Impressionists, his realism always set him apart. The Impressionists, complained the poet Valéry, "reduced the whole intellectual side of art to a few questions about texture and the coloring of shadows. The brain became nothing but retina." Degas's contemporaries saw something more in his work. Daniel Halévy [son of the author portrayed in the film] described it as a "depoetization" of life, a fascination with the simplest, most intimate, least beautiful gestures -- ballerinas stretching at the bar, practicing positions, waiting in the wings, taking instruction, scratching themselves, tying their shoes, adjusting their tutus, rubbing sore muscles, fixing their hair, fanning, talking, flirting, daydreaming, and doing almost everything but dancing. Degas's pictures of ballerinas performing on stage convey exquisitely what makes ballet ballet -- all that balance, grace and radiance that a contemporary critic called "mimed poetry, dream made visible." But, paradoxically, Degas preferred to portray ballet by stripping away the poetry and illusion to show the hard work, the boredom, the more common beauty behind the scenes. In a sonnet written about 1889, Degas addressed the young ballerinas: "One knows that in your world / Queens are made of distance and greasepaint." -- Paul Trachtman, "Degas and his Dancers" Smithsonian, April, 2003
    L'Etoile (The Star), c. 1876 - 7, Pastel on monotype
    Click here for a larger copy

    Most of the characters and events in the film have a source in reality. Degas was sometimes a sarcastic curmudgeon who could not reign in his biting wit. Devoted to his art, Degas rarely felt that a painting was finished. He frequented the Opéra ballet school and hired what were affectionately referred to as "ballet rats" to be his models. Marie Van Goethem served as the model for many of his paintings and for the statue "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer."

    Early in his career, when he was still working in a classical style, Degas' paintings had been exhibited at the Salon. At the time this was a high honor, required for success in the art world in France. Degas was the first artist who had been recognized by the Salon to exhibit with the "Independents."

    Degas' attitude toward painting is explained in the dialogue. For example, Degas referred to the effects of pastels as "powder of a butterfly's wings." The statement that "all critics are imbeciles" is attributed to Degas.

    Degas' father wanted him to become a lawyer and take over the family business. However, when it became clear that Degas would fail at law but could paint beautifully, his family fully supported his efforts to become an artist. The financial support stopped abruptly when Degas was 40. His father died and the family came upon hard financial times. Degas had to sell part of his private collection of paintings to avoid bankruptcy.

    Degas' eyesight began to deteriorate slowly when he was in his 40s. As his eyesight failed he worked on an increasingly large scale, applying pastel and charcoal in large bold strokes. After 1878 he experimented with sculpture. By 1908, at the age of 74, Degas was unable to draw.

    Marie van Goethem was one of three sisters who lived near Degas' studio and attended the Paris Opéra dance school. Their mother was a laundress. At the age of 15, Marie was selected to be in the Opéra ballet corps but was expelled a few years later for missing 11 straight rehearsals. The young students of the ballet school, the "ballet rats," varied between two extremes. There were girls who worked to perfect their art and who loved dance itself.
    Dancers in Blue, c. 1899
    Then there were the girls who attended class primarily to find a rich patron with whom they could trade their youth and sexual favors for money or security. (Wealthy men were given the run of the Opéra ballet. They could watch the classes and stand behind the scenes at performances. Degas painted them as shadowy figures. The black figure to the left of the dancer in "L'Etoile" is an example.) A lucky few of the girls who were looking for a rich patron married into aristocratic families. Others obtained a "protector" who set them up in an apartment. The unlucky ones became no more than prostitutes. Marie van Goethem disappeared, last seen at various bars. It seems likely that she went the way of the unlucky "ballet rats." One of her sisters went to the other extreme and became a respected dancer and a celebrated ballet teacher. Marie's third sister was imprisoned for stealing 700 francs from a lover.

    Jules Perrot, 1875
    Jules Perrot (1810-1892), the dancing master shown in the film, was one of the most famous dancers and choreographers of the mid-nineteenth century. His contributions to the choreography of "Giselle" are still performed today. For ten years, he worked in Russia, first as a dancer and later, from 1851 - 1858 as the ballet master at the Imperial Theatre. He left Russia because he disliked the autocratic rule of the Tsars. When he returned to France, Perrot was unable to adapt to the changes in taste that had occurred in his absence. He took an apartment near the Opéra and lived out his life in poverty. Degas met Perrot in the 1870s and was so impressed that he produced another version of "The Dance Class," making Perrot the centerpiece.

    Ludovic Halévy, the author shown in the film, wrote a book about backstage life at the ballet. Degas was supposed to provide illustrations for the book but it never happened. Degas' Impressionist friends included painters whose fame would soon eclipse that of the artists of the Salon.

    At the end of the 19th century, ballet in France (and most of Western Europe) had deteriorated from a separate art form with its own productions to one of the many elements of opera. The best dancers could be found at the Paris Opéra ballet. In fact, in the late 19th century, the Paris Opéra had the only permanent corps de ballet in France. (For the amazing tale of how ballet as a separate art form was lost to most of Western Europe at the end of the 19th century but thrived in Russia, to be transplanted back to Europe in 1909 when Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes took Paris by storm, see Learning Guide to the Red Shoes.)
          The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer
    1878 - 81
    "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer" was sculpted in wax over a wooden frame. Dressed in a muslin tutu, ballet shoes, and a satin bow, the statue was 3/4's life size. When Degas created his "Little Dancer," modern influences on sculpture were almost non-existent. (The only work of modern sculpture that predated the "Little Dancer" was August Rodin's groundbreaking "The Age of Bronze". It had been exhibited a year before Degas began work on the "Little Dancer.") Western European sculpture of the time still depicted religious, mythical or historic scenes or powerful people in the idealized tradition of classical Greece and Rome.

    Degas' statue was the antithesis of the permanent grand public statement. Antiheroic in size and treatment, the subject is not beautiful in the classical sense. Her features are not idealized. Like a painting, this new statue sought to establish a personal dialogue between the spectator and the art object. The materials of which it was made, wax, a dress, shoes, and a ribbon, brought the statue directly to a human level.

    Unveiled at the sixth Impressionist exhibit, "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer," elicited strong opinions of condemnation or praise. After Degas' death, this wax statue was among some 150 found in his studio. Many were cast into bronze to preserve them. Some 28 bronze casts of "The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer," were made and are now scattered around the world in museums and private collections. The view shown here is of one of the bronze castings.
 










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BUILDING VOCABULARY: critic, imbecile, brioche, rigor mortis, "all the rage," twittering, prancing, criticize, obsessive, rendering, "make ends meet," exhibition, portrait, gilt.














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Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:   1999 Editors' Choice as one of the "Best Videos of the Year" by the American Library Association's Booklist magazine; 2000 American Library Association Notable Children's Video; 1999 Parents' Choice Award Winner. 1999 KIDS FIRST! Coalition for Quality Children's Media -- "Top 5 Videos of the Year!"; 2000 Winner - Writers Guild of Canada Top Ten Award; 1999 Winner of The Humanitas Prize in the Children's Live Action category; 2000 Winner of two Golden Sheaf Awards at the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival - Best Childrens Production & Best Production Design.

Featured Actors:  Thomas Jay Ryan, Alison Pill, Kathryn Long, Robin Duke, Stephen Fretwell, Arlene Mazerolle, Allen Altman.

Director:  David Devine.
 
 
 
 
    Discussion Questions:

    1.  See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

    2.  What aspect of people or animals fascinated Degas?

    3.  Degas was interested in both ballet dancers and race horses. What do they have in common?

    4.  What did Degas mean when he said that it was a dancer's concentration that made her 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?

    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.

    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.

    8.  What role does the large doorway in the back play in this painting?

    9.  Why did Degas have the girl at the left scratch her back in an undignified and ungainly pose?

    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?

    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, leaning 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?

    13.  Is there one focus in this picture?

    Questions Concerning "L'Etoile"

    14.  How does Degas show that the central figure in this painting is moving?

    Dance Examination, 1880, Pastel and charcoal on paper
 




Select questions that are appropriate for your students.






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For suggested answers:    click here.


    Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:

    TALENT - AMBITION

    1.  At one point in this film, Degas doesn't take his own advice about something. What is it?

    2.  What did both Degas and Marie have to overcome, as shown in the movie?

    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.

    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?

    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.

    6.  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?

    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.

    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?
    Portrait de M. Duranty, 1879,
    Tempera and pastel on canvas
 

For suggested answers:    click here.


    Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)

    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.

    RESPECT

    (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 badly at times, including Mr. Halévy, Degas' housekeeper and Marie. They tolerated it because they had a great respect for his talent. What do you think about this?

    RESPONSIBILITY

    (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?

    3.  What did Degas mean when he said that no queen could be as noble as a laundress ironing?

    CARING

    (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?
 


Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.


For suggested answers:    click here.


    Bridges to Reading: (The age recommendations refer to the difficulty of the reading level. All of the books contain prints of Degas' beautiful work and comments about them. They are therefore interesting for older children and adults. Books recommended below age five are suitable for reading to very young children.) Degas and the Dance, The Painter and the Petits Rats, Perfecting their Art, by Susan Goldman Rubin, 2002, ages 9 - 13; Marie in Fourth Position: The Story of Degas' "the Little Dancer", Amy Littlesugar, 1996; ages 4 - 8; Degas, the Painted Gesture, Jacqueline Loumaye, 1992, part of the Art for Children series, ages 9 - 13; Meet Edgar Degas by Anne Newlands, National Gallery of Canada, 1988, ages 8 - 13; Edgar Degas, by Mike Venezia, part of the Getting to know the World's Greatest Artists' Specials, 2000, ages 9 - 13; Edgar Degas Dance Like a Butterfly, by Angele Wenzel, 2002, part of the Adventures in Art series, ages 9 - 13.
 



MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: See films on Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Winslow Homer, and Mary Cassatt by the producers of this film at Devine Entertainment Films on TeachWithMovies.com. See also, all films listed in the Visual Arts section of the Subject Matter Index.
 



OTHER LESSON PLANS:



PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:  
 


    Bibliography: In addition to web sites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

    • Degas by Eduard Hüttinger, 1977, Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York;
    • Degas and the Dance by Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, 2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers in Association with the American Federation of Arts, New York;
    • Degas and the Little Dancer by Richard Kendall, 1998, Yale University Press, New Haven, in association with the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.
    • "Degas, Edgar." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 15 Sep, 2003 .
    • "Painting, Western." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 15 Sep, 2003 .
    • "Rodin, Auguste." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 20 Sep, 2003 .



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