For as far back as I can remember, Van Gogh and Monet were my favourites; Degas never got a look-in until a happenstance compelled me.
Tolarno Galleries in St Kilda, run by suave Frenchman Georges Mora, was my artistic home from 1969 till 1979. Georges also owned Tolarno restaurant, part of the gig and a generous meal ticket for me – lunch, dinner, and quite often afternoon tea.
Natasha Kirsta lived upstairs, and once a week we lunched together on the round table reserved for the Mora family. She was a Georgian princess who as a young girl had fled to France during the Bolshevik Revolution. Settling in Paris she became a ballet dancer, eventually making her way to Australia where she was, at the time, teaching at the Kathy Gorham Ballet School in Melbourne.
Though probably in her mid 70s, she looked about one hundred and ten: hunched over, frail, with skinny bird-like legs lucky to hold up her petite four-and-a-half-foot frame. Painted red lips and nails, pencilled-on eyebrows and a rather large nose: in her black heavy high-heeled shoes, she always reminded me of Minnie Mouse. Of course Minnie would never be seen puffing on French Gitane cigarettes like Natasha – always of course protruding out of her tortoiseshell cigarette holder.
So there we were, Natasha and ‘Ivanovanovich Darlink’ as she called me, sipping on filtered black coffee when Rudolph Nureyev walked in, or should I say, flitted and bounced in, kissed Natasha on both cheeks, then sat down with us. Being in my mid-twenties, and a little unworldly, and overawed by such a glamorous guest, I couldn’t utter a word. I’m not quite sure whether they chatted in Russian, French or some secret dialect, but it sure seemed a joyous occasion. No sooner than he finished his coffee he sprang up, shook my hand, kissed and hugged Natasha again, then disappeared, stage right, out the door.
The very next day I hunted down a book on Degas to feast on his ballet paintings. And I’ve been hooked on ballet ever since.
Now I knew Degas was in town, or at least some of his works were, at the National Gallery of Victoria, so I thought – why not make a weekend of it and kill two birds with one stone. Well, it ended up being a long weekend and three birds. First, on Friday, I went to see my thoroughbred broodmare Levantera at Seymour. She is an elegant cloud-grey beauty, chosen simply because her grand-sire was named after the famous ballet dancer Nijinsky – aptly named as he was sired by the great steed Northern Dancer. I had looked hard for a mare related to Nureyev, another champion sire by Northern Dancer, but having no luck, I thought she’d do. She’d caught my eye, being such a great type.
The next cab off the rank was Flemington on the Saturday. With a bit of swift talking I managed to get into the mounting yard to watch the shimmering-coated young two-year-old colts parade. There’s no surprise that stallions were named after Nijinsky and Nureyev. These colts were balls of muscle, spring-loaded with energy, prancing with necks arched, youthfully confident and proud, itching to hit the green stage. I’ll never know how those young girl strappers ever managed to control these explosive, streamlined, inbred freaks of nature; what courage.
Next the pint-sized jockeys, glamorous in their hard-edge abstractionist-coloured silks, were legged up, triggering the fiery colts to tighten their twitch muscles. Nostrils flared, veins protruding in their shoulders and neck, they were now incapable of being led in a straight line. Tightly reined, they were nursed and cajoled out onto the track, dancing on their toes, sideways and almost galloping on the spot – Nureyev all over.
Go to Youtube and look at Giselle, Pas de Deux, from Act II, 1962, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. It’s not often anyone can outshine Fonteyn, but here Nureyev does. The colt in the codpiece leaps and bounds to superhuman heights, then magically, in almost slow motion, suspends himself in the air as he flies across the stage with the timing and athletic grace of Nadia Comaneci, the bounce of an African springbok and the strength of Phar Lap.
Sunday, after croissants and coffee for breakfast in Acland Street, St Kilda, I finally arrived at the Degas spectacular. His first offering to really catch my eye was one of the major oils on canvas, The Rehearsal, painted in 1874. This is Degas at his absolute best: he gives us, the viewer, the position of fly on the wall, or as he probably was, a tolerated voyeur. His love of light and colour, especially that salmon-peach, is pure magic. Look how it glows on the ribbons and bounces off highlights from their ballet slippers; and his trademark, that serene gossamer weightless translucent air-filled float of the girls’ skirts. Any wonder they can dance en pointe; those angel-dust costumes balloon them.
I just love the young girl in green in the foreground: relaxed, probably waiting for her turn on the floor, no more than 12 or 13, and sitting with her feet at 180 degrees, the defining trademark of a ballerina. There’s no strain on her face; she is beautifully content to be there, belying the almost foot-binding torture it takes to develop such a pose.
Strangely enough, I’m drawn to The Rehearsal mostly because it reminds me of a shearing shed – that familiar, almost north-east white light hitting the windows and doors, and the reflected flickers and patches on the boards where the shearers would normally do their work. I am probably the only one in the world that sees this painting as Degas’ Shearing of the rams, but there you have it.
However, I can’t help feeling disturbed by Degas’ continual admission of an unhealthy relationship between the young dancers and their old male benefactors. This is not too subtley suggested in his pastel The Star, 1876-77, illustrated on page 115 of the extensive book accompanying the show: Degas: A New Vision. Here, the faceless dark male figure hides behind the scenery off-stage, hovering over his owned and paid-for quarry. There is a strong element of truth – and maybe asking for redemption –behind so many of Degas’ works.
Unexpectedly I then discovered two tiny sculptures, very Rodin-like, that dragged me back to the racecourse, to Nureyev and Nijinsky. Horse Balking, late 1880s, cast in a black bronze, displayed all the nervous muscle and pent-up energy as, in fear, it changes path in an instant. It’s unpredictable, light-footed and super in its strength.
Alongside, the next treasure, Horse Rearing, 1880s, alerted me to the dangers of the mounting yard. For no apparent reason, these finely tuned race-fit thoroughbreds can take fright at almost anything, suddenly rearing up. The poor strapper may never know why: maybe a fascinator worn by a lady in the crowd, a passing seagull, or the glint of light from a watch or brooch. This is when they’re at their most dangerous, where many an accident occurs. Grooms at studs have been killed by out-of-control stallions rearing and shying, perhaps even at nothing. Degas understood this exaggerated fight or flight trait in thoroughbreds, and captured it perfectly.
In a way, these horse sculptures are such a contrast to Degas’ ballerinas, who must practise endlessly to become clockwork predictable, automatically knowing where every step and toe lands in their demanding stage performance. However, the job of the male dancer, and especially if you look at Nureyev, is to show strength beyond belief with movement so wonderful that it appears freakish and mind-blowingly unexpected, more like a highly tuned racehorse.
There’s no doubt Degas is a wonderful painter and, quite possibly, an even better sculptor. Just go and see the show – and make up your own mind.
Main image caption:
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c. 1874
Oil on canvas, 58.4 x 83.8 cm
Burrell Collection, Glasgow
Gift from Sir William and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944 (35.246)
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Degas: A New Vision
Until 18 September, 2016
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Victoria
Open 10am-5pm daily
Sat & Sun 9am-5pm