Photo Credit: The company of Marie, Dancing Still at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Paul Kolnik
3.5 STARS OUT OF 5 (Want to know what exactly our star ratings mean? Check out our explanations here)
Marie, Dancing Still is a solid new musical theater work inspired by the famous sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years of prominent 19th-century artist Edgar Degas–or, more accurately, the subject of the sculpture. It was modeled by, non-so-surprisingly, a little dancer of fourteen years. Her name was Marie van Goethem, and she was a young student at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1880. The story of the show is largely imagined; we have precious little record of the real Marie beyond her statue and her family.
The show Marie was made by the decorated writer/composer duo Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, known for their Tony-winning Ragtime (book and score), and Once on This Island (Best Revival). The show was directed and choreographed by five-time-Tony-winning Susan Stroman, best known for 2001’s The Producers. Cast includes New York City Ballet principal ballerina Tiler Peck as Young Marie, Terrence Mann as Degas, Louise Pitre playing Adult Marie, Tony winner Karen Ziemba as Marie’s mother Martine Van Goethem, and Dee Hoty as a rare female artist Mary Cassatt. Though I was maybe a little disappointed, as I came in with high expectations for music following Ragtime and came away without a single song stuck in my head, the dancing was phenomenal, making the frankly simple choreography on paper pretty impressive in practice. Tiler Peck in particular is like lightning, moving like music itself and turning like she never wants to stop.
Combining ballet with musical theater used to be natural and commonplace, (think George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins), but has become a little obsolete in recent years. There are exceptions, notably Phantom of the Opera, but it’s seen as an old fashioned approach to musical choreography. I’m hoping Marie, Dancing Still might inspire more ballet on Broadway, which we’ve actually been seeing recently: Tiler Peck’s fellow NYCB principal, Sara Mearns, recently featured in a revival of Balanchine’s I Married an Angel; NYCB Resident Choreographer Justin Peck (no relation to Tiler) struck gold with 2018’s Carousel revival and is set to choreograph the new West Side Story film. Ballet is becoming popular! Fantastic!
Tiler Peck has long been my favorite ballerina, and her performance here is the highlight of the show. Her character is a scrappy, chronically-late, young “little rat” of the Paris Opera Ballet who survives through pickpocketing and working herself raw in the dance studio and in her mother’s laundry business. Peck’s perfect fouette turns, arabesque lines and incredible energy give desperation and sensitivity to Marie. Terrence Mann is an excellent Degas, sharing a rapid-fire rapport with Peck, begrudgingly filling the role of father figure in Marie’s life.
In the prologue, the story begins with Adult Marie entering the late Degas’ studio to confront Mary Cassatt, presumably in charge of Degas’s belongings following his death. The remainder of the show is Adult Marie expositing and narrating as she convinces Cassatt that she is indeed the girl that Degas sculpted; she has never seen the sculpture, and she wants to see the work that ruined her life.
In “C’est le Ballet” the first musical number of the show, we have gone back several decades and follow young Marie. Marie steals Degas’ pocket watch as he explores the Paris Opera House. She pawns it off to a cobbler for new pointe shoes, then steals the pocket watch back from the cobbler. Degas calls her a thief, and Marie runs away to her mother’s laundry business for the next number, “Laundry”.
The show contains several symbols of female opportunity—Marie and her younger sister Charlotte dream of being ballerinas; their mother tells them that no matter what happens, there’s always laundry to be washed (she’ll be disappointed when, in 30 odd years, electric washing machines come into play); Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, is a singer and dancer at the bar, La Rat Mort, who has found herself a rich, sleazy, boyfriend. I didn’t quite realize this during the show, but the story and the cast are female dominated, even if the world the story takes place in (1800s France) is patriarchal. The story is very much about what women do to survive, and how they balance dreams with reality.
Meanwhile, Edgar Degas is having an eye exam–he is slowly going blind. Degas has had his laundry washed by the van Goethem’s, and Marie’s job as the laundry delivery girl sends her into his studio. When Degas confronts her for her theft, he realizes something: her unique beauty. Rather than being the traditionally perfect image of a French ballerina, Marie is caught in between worlds. Between childhood and adulthood, between the poverty of her family and the glamour of her profession, between the grace of her dancing and thievery versus the clumsiness of her escape from Degas’ studio. He sees beauty in her imperfections, in her contradictions. While they have a rough, zippy, argumentative dynamic, especially in the beginning, they build a rapport and a healthy relationship.
Marie: “Do you have children?”
Marie: “Lucky for them.”
I’m not going to write up more of the story scene by scene, simply because this is a three-hour show. However, I will give my highlights. Because of her natural talent as a dancer, Marie is cast in a featured role at the ballet. Marie befriends and romances a violinist named Christian, played by Kyle Harris (“Musicians and Dancers and Fools”). Marie and Degas become friends, and practically become family. He feeds her, pays her, and protects her. Christian is fired for punching Antoinette’s wealthy boyfriend in the face after he tries to assault Marie, and Christian moves on (“Between Us”). When Degas goes blind and builds a sculpture of Marie, people are offended by the wax replica, by the nasty truth that is the artwork. Marie is… less than attractive in the wax figure, and the director of the Paris Opera Ballet fires her for shaming the company.
This pulls Marie into a ‘dream ballet’, where Tiler Peck truly shines. A dream ballet is where the narrative is pushed forward through dance, with no dialogue. It is symbolic rather than literal: Marie doesn’t actually encounter the various characters, but rather they represent things. The feisty street dancers of Le Rat Mort send her reeling. Marie’s mother and her entourage of laundry workers represent another possibility for Marie to survive. Marie is desperate to avoid all of them, because she can’t stand the idea of not being a ballet dancer. Peck sparkles in every movement, she jumps like every second she spends on the ground is a second wasted, slides across the stage en pointe. She is an absolute goddess. She might be the best dancer I’ve ever seen, even with the uncomplicated choreography. She truly carries the show from the beginning to the end.
I think the dream ballet is meant to show how easily a woman’s life can be torn apart, and how resilient women must be to survive when everything is taken away. Marie has lost her dream, her boyfriend, she has left her father figure, she has nothing anymore. It’s a painful moment. The show kind of glosses over how exactly Marie survives into the age she is in the prologue, which is probably smart because we have no record of how the real Marie lived after she modeled for Degas.
There is, however, a sweet ending. Marie’s dance career was not in vain; she is now arguably the most famous ballet dancer in the world, as the subject of one of Degas’ best-known pieces of art. Her sculpture inspires dancers today, and will continue to do so in the future. While Marie never got to experience the glamour she dreamt of, she certainly achieved the fame she aimed for. Degas believed that old things carry the life of the person who owned them. The ribbon in the sculpture’s hair, the ratty pointe shoes on its feet, and the aged tutu around its hips carry the spirit of young Marie, dancing still.
With a 2 hour 45 minute runtime and a 15 minute intermission, the show runs perhaps half an hour too long. It dragged in a few places, and as I said earlier it is devoid of good earworms. That aside, I was quite impressed by the set, costumes, and cast. I would’ve preferred more complex choreography, but the dancers were all very talented.
Tiler Peck rose far above everyone else though. It’s not simply that she jumped higher or turned faster (although she did– her chaînés were to die for). She had that undefinable x-factor in spades, and what she lacked in singing ability was more than made up for in dancing skill and acting talent. It’s no wonder she’s a star of one of the biggest ballet companies in the world. I have a hard time seeing alternative casting for Marie; she is perfectly suited to the role and perhaps impossible to replace. Even dancers physically capable of delivering lines and completing all of the steps would be incapable of giving such a strong performance.
I really liked the many references to Degas’ work, in the form of paintings, dialogue references, and staging. The lyrics weren’t very clever or complex, but they were often funny and they did their job. The score was more successful, if still rather bland. Beyond the melody of “C’est le Ballet”, “Laundry”, and “Between Us”, there wasn’t very much to take away from the musical aspect of the show. The narrative was powerful, and clearly has a lot of potential to be a truly classic story if the rest of the show were as colorful and beautiful as the story itself.
I do truly believe that a few tweaks here or there would greatly improve the show, and as far as I could tell from my friends in the cast, there have been changes every day leading up to opening night. Perhaps the show just needs to mature before a Broadway run. This is, after all, the second incarnation of the show after 2014’s Little Dancer. I truly hope to see more from a show with this level of creative power behind it, and maybe we’ll see more in the future. For now, this show has a lot of unrealized promise but is still a sound show with good foundations, and I recommend watching it, especially if you’re a ballet fan.
Marie, Dancing Still runs through April 14th at the 5th Avenue Theater.