If I were a Degas dancer

Image of Susie Boyt

I was on my way to the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy for the third time in a week. I’ve taken to checking in with the pictures on a regular basis. It’s a wonderful start to the day, better even than hopping on a tube to Vauxhall at dawn and entering the vast perfumed warehouse crammed with flowers that is New Covent Garden Market. At the moment in the market there are large bundles of English hydrangeas in deep dark reds and bright greens and mauves and Wedgwood blue – so fresh that their blossoms on your palms are as sharp as potato crisps; there are calla lilies in plum and purplish black and burnt orange; and gladioli in scarlet and in nine different pinks: what my mother might describe as “Oh, how lovely and hideous!” If I were making a ballet I would set it there (although perhaps among the roses). Or I might even set it among the Degas paintings.

Each visit to the exhibit has brought new preoccupations: is it possible a dancer might actually lace her slipper on the stomach of a double bass? Yesterday it struck me that Degas was excellent at painting paint, the dingy rust-and-yellow striped wall of the rehearsal room looks as though it has absorbed decades of pirouettes and pirouette-sweat, as well as smoke from a thousand Paris chimneys floating in through the open window. The mass of foliage in a painted stage backdrop is itself a dazzling choreography of leaves on Degas’ canvas.

I seek out my favourite dancers: it is the drawings that move me most this week. The double or triple outlines some of them possess seem less like starts and false starts and more to do with sincerity of movement and intense concentration and femininity.

I don’t wonder what the lives of Degas dancers were like – dancers’ lives have always been hard – and the works don’t quite encourage that sort of response. But I do put myself in their shoes. In front of the simpler exercises rendered in charcoal, such as “Dancer Executing a Pas de Bourée in the Spanish Style” or “Preparation for an Inside Pirouette”, I can be heard to murmur wryly: “I can do that, I can do that.” Not that it proves anything – but it is true.

These paintings and drawings mean a great deal to me because they contain a world I have often longed for, that my heart feels should, by rights, be mine. (My brain knows better, being a sensible sort.) I have no regrets at all about the days I pass but the monumental allure of the life Degas depicts always surprises in its force and strength. “Dancer Ready to Dance, Right Foot Forward” is a title of a charcoal and pastel drawing but it might also be a manifesto, a design for living, for hope.

Today in front of “The Rehearsal” I think how I have been caught once or twice in my life in a gridlock of tulle and flesh-coloured satin and spangles, watching in the wings, or in a dressing-room scramble of limbs and bones and hair, a bit dizzy with the smell of oil-based make-up mixed with perspiration, wholly unable to move due to the jam of bodies, and I have closed my eyes for a second and taken a breath and felt a bit sublime. That physical proximity that means it’s almost impossible to tell which leg and arm and foot belongs to whom is a beguiling state, as if the separateness that being a human being necessarily involves just collapses for a moment and you have been reunited with something long-lost. I don’t quite mean I had the sensation that before me was proof that actually I am descended from dinosaurs or snow-topped mountains or sea horses or dear little icy rivulets, but something a bit eternal in that way creeps over you at such times. Silly, I know, but it’s a feeling to be prized.

Degas’ tendency to capture his dancers in rehearsal or limbering up or waiting or resting, rather than always in their triumphant polished performances, seems to me to contain so much dignity and romance. It is how we want people to think of us: that we are somehow more beautiful and human and valuable when we are “off” than when we are “on”.

For who among us wants to be liked at her best? What does that prove, apart from nothing at all? Typing in the library in a jersey and skirt or staring out of the window or striding down the street or being grumpy or showing the workings of ourselves in our margins is when we really want and need to be admired.


More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.