‘The end of the room is the

‘The Rehearsal’ was one of Degas’ first paintings of the
ballet; his interest in the subject was perpetual, lasting until the end of his
life. I find this work intriguing because of its atmosphere of immediacy. The
viewer is a fly on the wall, peering in on this class unnoticed by the dancers but
noticing all the nuances of the painting; from the dancer hidden by the spiral
staircase to the feet descending the stairs. It is as though this is a snapshot
in a place of bustling activity; there are people partially obscured by objects,
but each figure is independent and unique e.g. the dancers have different
coloured sashes – in this way, Degas offsets the obsession with uniformity that
is intrinsic to ballet. The figures are not posed for a picture but are chaotic
and half-seen, as they are in reality.

              Beyond the
staircase a group of dancers perform a routine of arabesques. Girls relax with
their chaperones in the foreground on the right. At the far end of the room is
the ballet master, Jules Perrot. It is interesting to note that this room never
existed in the Palais Garnier but belonged to the Opera Choiseul which had
burned down years previously; Perrot is also misplaced because Degas took this
figure from a postcard when Perrot was working for the imperial ballet in St
Petersburg1. However
convincing the fluency of the composition might be, Degas rarely worked from
life, instead preferring to use sketches, memory and imagination to create
masterpieces. When studying the ballet, amid the chaos he found endless
repetition of standard movements, practising these in his studio until the
ratios and tonal variances were refined; this seems a fitting metaphor for
Degas’ pursuit of authenticity – he was showing the banal truth of the ballet
hidden by the Opera’s dazzling stage facades.

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              The thing
that strikes me most about this painting is how masterfully exact the lighting
of the room is. A dull palette of pale greys and browns mute the natural light
filtering through the windows. The tone is sepia-like giving a dusty effect;
similarly, the shade on the walls portrays peeling paint. Degas demonstrates
his understanding of how the humble, urban condition of the classroom was more
important to the dancer’s skill than the stage of the Palais Garnier where she
performed.

              Impressionists
were fascinated by banality, urbanity and movement, (although Degas rejected
this label), yet ballet was an irregularity at this time; when new artistic
movements were rising, e.g. impressionism, realism and romanticism, ballet
remained a classicist symbol2. Portrayal
of such composure required true understanding of the art form; thus, Degas’
work drew connections between classicism and realism. While faces are only
lightly sketched, there is a detailed focus on the limbs which are vague but
placed incredibly precisely. He depicts life without photographic accuracy, but
a satisfying equilibrium is achieved through a meticulously structured
composition using strong diagonals and symmetries. Energy and dynamism dominates
parts of the work but elsewhere there is poise and composure; it is chaotic and
yet still.

              There is
no evidence of interaction between Degas and the dancers – the painting is
reserved and vague about their characteristics. But perhaps there is a more
profound relationship between the artist and his favourite subject than meets
the eye. Degas invigorates an empty canvas just as a ballerina dances on an
empty stage. There is a playfulness, an uncertainty, almost an unbalance – but the
painting is balanced in this split-second nevertheless.    

 

1
James Davidson, The Guardian

2 The
Aleph Mag