“I think teenagers would relate to her defiance,” one woman says. She is one in a group of twenty to thirty people my grandparent’s age who are in front of a replica of Degas’ Little Dancer. They are sitting on fold out chairs, discussing works of art with an intelligence and interest that is almost frighteningly intense. The museum guide who leads the discussion has brought up the subject of how teenagers would react to this piece of art, and I can’t help but feel defensive at the prospect of them discussing my age group.
The guide says that if he were leading a discussion with teenagers he would not have mentioned such strong language as “prostitution” in relation to the work of art. He would leave out the information he had given this group and go straight to asking how the statue makes them feel. “In one word, how does this make you feel?” he says to his theoretical audience. “Do you think they would relate to this statue?” he says to the real one. The group seems unsure of how to answer this, and it is then that the woman I referred to earlier says that yes, she thinks teenagers would relate to this. I feel like giving her a high five. Teenagers would relate to her defiance, she continues. Others nod in agreement.
The museum guide has noticed me standing there and gestures for me to come over. He asks me a similar question to the one he posed to his theoretical band of teenagers just a few minutes before: “Would you mind telling me what you think this statue means in one word?” I don’t hesitate at all. “Vulnerable,” I say.
Little Dancer is a well-known sculpture that you have probably seen an image of at some point. It is of a ballet dancer who is fourteen years old. She stands in fourth position with her hands clasped behind her, her shoulders curving slightly forward. Her drab tutu is made of simple, cream colored cloth with a similar cloth forming a loose bow around her hair. Her face inclines upward and her eyes are almost closed. Her position is lazy, as if this is where she stood naturally rather than a purposeful ballet pose. She is skinny and unremarkable, but it is she and no one else who Degas chose to immortalize in this sculpture.
I see vulnerability written in her posture, how she is slouching slightly in a way that isn’t balletic. I see it in her shoulders, which turn forward as if to make her smaller, despite the fact that her hands are behind her back. I see it in her skinny body which set her apart from the dancers of her day, who were more robust. She may have been shamed for her small body just as dancers today are shamed for “larger” bodies. I see vulnerability in the very fact that she is the subject of a piece of art, and that she was subjected to an artist’s scrutiny to be shown how she is seen through his eyes.
I said all this (much to my own surprise) to the discussion group, although maybe in a less articulate way. But there is more that strikes me about her. What makes her the ultimate example of vulnerability is that she is at the juncture of childhood and adolescence. This piece of art was created when she was at the brink of self-awareness, when she didn’t fully have the body of a woman but didn’t fully have the heart of a child. In a weird way, I hurt for her. Who knows what standards of perfection she was subjected to, and who knows how she was beginning to perceive those standards in relation to her identity. She has an air of naiveté about her (the half closed eyes, the tilted chin) that seem to say that she is still a child, full of emotions yet lacking in self-awareness – good or bad. But that will all change soon.
Two people thanked me as I left for sharing my thoughts, and later another woman who was part of the group ran into me and spoke to me for a moment. She thanked me for sharing, saying none of them had even imagined she was vulnerable! She was excited and kind and asked me if I though Degas had picked her intentionally for her small size. I was struck by the fact that she really cared about what I thought and took it seriously by asking such a question.
I do not know exactly what any work of art means, and I certainly don’t know exactly what this experience means. But I can’t help but be struck by the different interpretations presented by myself and the discussion group. It seems a perfect example of the gaps but also the connections between age groups. Older people often look at us and see individualism and defiance where we are indeed vulnerable. And while their mistaken perceptions can hurt us, there is also a fervent desire in so many people to simply understand. We make a mistake if we shut our mouths around them and assume they are disinterested. We need them to know where we hurt and what we think so that we can give to each other like humans do.
I also want to say something about perfection before I close. I think it is the vulnerability and raw expression in the Little Dancer that makes it such a good piece of art. The “imperfection” of her nonchalant pose is what allows us to see who she might have been. There is a reason that Degas’ sculpture of a dancer in penché isn’t that iconic. All this to say, I think there is a way to balance perfection and vulnerability today in the ballet world. People want to see who you are and it would be a mistake to keep that gift from them. If the ballet world were to embrace honest expression not just as a way to draw in an audience but a way to live your life I think we would see healthier people and better performances. There must be a way to balance presentation of your idealized self and presentation of who you are right here, right now. If you don’t want me at my sickled foot you don’t deserve me at my quadruple pirouette. Or something like that. 😉