In a time when photography wasn't fast enough to snap a dancer without arduous posing, Edgar Degas created fleeting impressions of movement, presenting dancers precariously poised or obscured in a flurry of floaty tutu. Off-stage, beautiful yet anonymous dancers rest, fix shoes, adjust costumes, rehearse and wait; the workhorses of the corps de ballet shown as real people rather than idealised nymphs.
Pairs of legs from different perspectives and the amazing suite of sketches for the famous Little Dancer sculpture give insight into how the artist tackled his subject. Studies of dancers performing one step through different stages are set side by side with contemporaneous experimental photography and film attempting to capture the human form in motion.
Degas' frieze paintings of dancers in rehearsal rooms are collected together, demonstrating the sweep of his panoramic gaze alongside early panoramic photos of Paris. You'll learn the story behind the spinning entrance hall shadow dancers when you encounter Degas' nude figures sculpted from wax. Some of the artist's own photographs are also on display, including a stunning blow up of one dancer, in striking orange hues, preparing you for the later paintings, full of colour.
The Royal Academy galleries are full of Degas' ballet girls - beautiful paintings and dozens of preparatory drawings and sketches - but the curatorial theme 'picturing movement' goes way beyond chocolate box images of tutu and frou-frou, probing the artist's practice and considering contemporary developments in film and photography, without ever detracting from the luminous beauty of these bygone ballerinas.
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement opens on Saturday at the Royal Academy. Standard adult tickets £14, RA Friends free. Until 11 December 2011.
Image: Two Dancers on Stage by Degas, courtesy of the Royal Academy.