PORTLAND, Maine — Not far from where a sculpture, a lithograph and an aquatint all displayed famed impressionist Edgar Degas’ fascination with ballerinas, Portland-area amateurs tried out the same muses Thursday.
Performers from the Maine State Ballet flexed, balanced and twirled in an open lobby area at the Portland Museum of Art, surrounded by sketchers of all ages trying their hands at the craft Degas made famous. The two-hour event was cross-promotional, drawing attention to the opening of the museum’s exhibit “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist,” as well as the ballet’s March 31-April 1 production of “Swan Lake” at the nearby Merrill Auditorium.
Degas was notoriously inspired by ballerinas — as illustrated by at least four works included in the mixed- and multiple-media exhibition — so inviting the Falmouth-based performers to the museum for open public sketchings was a natural move, said museum Education Director Dana Baldwin.
Baldwin noted that in many of Degas’ pieces, he depicted the ballerinas practicing under the watchful eyes of disciplinary teachers, apparently spellbound by how a performance so smooth and peaceful came from a practice regimen so rigid and abrasive.
“I think he was really struck by that contrast between the beauty of the artistry and the structure or difficulty of the art form,” she said, adding that many of Thursday’s attendees “have been struck by how athletic [ballet] is. It’s so hard to do this, you have to be so strong, but they make it look so easy.”
In the main lobby space, the ballet dancers stretched and practiced basic techniques before their artistic audience, not unlike what Degas might have watched on the sidelines of a warm-up in the late 1800s.
“When I think of Degas, I think of that backstage and classroom atmosphere — he captured that anticipation and excitement,” Janet Davis, principal dancer in the coming “Swan Lake” production, told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday. “And here, this is fun because people don’t often see this side of the dancers, so it kind of fits.”
In a first-floor gallery space nearby, younger ballerinas took turns posing still, hands clasped behind their backs and right feet pointed forward in the pose made famous in the 1881 Degas sculpture “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.” The second spot provided a location to draw dancers who weren’t moving. Crowded around were aspiring artists seeking to recapture the late French artist’s magic with papers and pencils.
“I like the way they move and the positions they’re in,” said one of the younger sketchers on hand, Phoebe Van Soest, 7, of Portland, who takes ballet classes herself. “It’s the gracefulness of what they’re doing.”