While observing a dance class, Degas comes to appreciate 'Rie's joy in dancing and is inspired by her spontaneity and individuality.
What strikes me about Children's Theater of Madison's production of Degas' Little Dancer, which I saw Saturday afternoon at Overture Center's Playhouse, is exactly what I've come to appreciate about the company's productions in general: the wonderful interplay between the adult and child actors and director Roseann Sheridan's ability to elicit natural performances from her young cast members.
Degas' Little Dancer, written by Wesley Middleton, has as its inspiration Edgar Degas' realistic wax and fabric sculpture of the young Paris Opera dancer Marie Van Goethem. This piece was the only sculpture that the Impressionist exhibited in public during his life, and 28 bronze replicas were cast after his death. Many of those are now in museum collections around the world (one recently was auctioned at Sotheby's for $19.2 million), and the beloved original resides at the National Gallery of Art.
Straddling time periods, the play introduces us to 'Rie (that's short for Marie), a ballet student in current-day Chicago who sees the sculpture at a museum exhibit and aspires to perfect her dance technique. Perfection in classical ballet may not be in the cards for 'Rie, who chafes at always being cast as a cloud or a tree in her dance recitals and is overshadowed by star pupils like Danielle (McKenna Holly Collins, who has a shining future in dance with her precise technique and enviable facility).
'Rie is magically whisked back to Degas' Paris with the help of the mysterious Zoe (well played by Guiliana Miolo), who appears at the museum. In the 1880s Zoe assists cranky Degas, who is frustrated by his failing eyesight and in a bit of rut.
'Rie and Degas initially butt heads. She is determined to coax him into putting down his brushes and paints and trying to sculpt her likeness. While observing a dance class, Degas comes to appreciate 'Rie's joy in dancing and is inspired by her spontaneity and individuality. 'Rie realizes that her art is not all about perfect technique; it's about expressing herself through pure movement, even if she doesn't fit the ideal dancer mold.
As 'Rie, Samantha Nicole Richards has a bright-eyed charm, and there are times when she's in that slightly slouchy fourth position, with her hands clasped behind her back, her chin jutting out in a combination of weariness and defiance, that she really does resemble Degas' famous sculpture. She shares some very good moments with Sam White, who ably portrays Degas with just the right amount of bluster.
The play features choreography from Madison Ballet's W. Earle Smith, who has done a nice job working with the young ensemble. I've found that CTM productions are usually good looking, and that's true of this play thanks to Susan Nanning-Sorenson, who created smart costumes, and Nanya Ramey, who came up with a simple yet evocative set.
There are several scenes that have a really lovely quality, but there are moments where things felt a little clunky. I wasn't a fan of the ensemble chanting phrases and words. My daughter, who is a second grader, pronounced the play awesome but later confessed to having been a bit confused.
I hung up my own pointe shoes over 25 years ago and was sort of surprised that 'Rie's dream of becoming a dancer still moved me. I imagine young dance students would be particularly interested in this play, which explores the intersection of two arts.