When Edgar Degas first exhibited his sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, it wasn't received with praise. In fact, the wax figure was met with controversy as critics described it as anything but coddling the hallmarks of ballet.
But two young ladies studying at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy see it differently.
Madison Young and Graycen Jones, both 15 years old, were offered a special preview of the bronze cast of the original sculpture, which accompanies The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that opens on Dec. 22. Houston is one of two cities in which Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, on loan from the Clark in Williamstown, Mass., will be on view as part of a traveling collection.
"I think her poise and elegance captures accurately the essence of the timeless beauty of ballet," Jones says. "There's something about her gaze that says to me that she's thinking about dance and not what may be happening elsewhere. She's in the moment."
"The sculpture represents all of the years that ballerinas need to practice to achieve effortless elegance."
Graycen, from California, moved to Houston to enroll in the yearlong Houston Ballet program. In the academy's dormitory, she shares a common room with Young, a first-year student of the preparatory school. Similar to Jones, Young moved away from her home in Utah to pursue her dream of becoming a leading lady of ballet.
"The sculpture represents all of the years that ballerinas need to practice to achieve effortless elegance," Young explains. "She has an air of confidence as she waits her turn to dance."
Degas had no formal training in sculpture when he began forging the work in 1897. As Degas' model was a Belgian pupil at the Paris Opera's ballet school, there's a poetic je ne sais quois when Jones and Young, in full regalia, posed for photos with a mademoiselle of similar ambitions who lived more than a century earlier.
Particularly as the two girls are preparing for their respective roles in Houston Ballet's production of The Nutcraker, which runs from Nov. 29 through Dec. 29.
The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is on view at the MFAH from Dec. 22 through March 23, 2014. Ticket sales for the exhibition open on Wednesday. Adult admission starts at $20.
Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker runs from Nov. 29 thorough Dec. 29. Tickets start at $19 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-227-2787.