In a recent article on Artsy, the sordid story of Degas’ Little Dancer is recounted. Neil Folberg dealt with these issues when he made a series of photographs based on the work of the French Impressionist painters in 2003. These images were later published in the Abbeville Press book written by Lin Arison, “Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists.”

Neil Folberg
Four Dancers, 2003
Vision Neil Folberg Gallery

Folberg worked alongside his wife (herself a former dancer and teacher) with young dancers in a ballet studio in Paris for the better part of a week to make these photographs. The studio was a traditional French studio space in the 8th arrondisement directed by a retired étoille of the Paris Opera Ballet. Though Folberg borrowed Degas’ palette, lighting and poses, he treated the dancers with a more contemporary approach – they are engaged and alert, sometimes looking straight into the camera in a way that Degas would never have portrayed. 

He treated the story of Degas’ Little Dancer, a young girl by the name of Marie van Goethem (who was most likely introduced by her prostitute mother into the same profession) by depicting the young teenager in two modes: as the idealized little dancer dressed in pure white and as a contemporary young dancer in black whose gaze confronts the camera. This story was later presented by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2010 (see below).

Neil Folberg, The Little Dancer, after Degas, 203

As critic William Meyers of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mr. Folberg was commissioned in 2002 by Lin Arison, a writer with whom he collaborates, to create a body of photographs “about the lives and world of the French Impressionist painters.” There has been lively intercourse between painters and photographers since photography came into being, but I am not aware of another project as extensive and thorough as Mr. Folberg’s. He immersed himself in the culture and history of late 19th century France and the lives and works of the Impressionists: Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Renoir, Degas, van Gogh. Not just their paintings and drawings and writings, but the actual landscapes they painted, the living rooms and ateliers where they lived and worked, and their flesh-and-blood descendants. To a remarkable degree he became one with them, if not actually one of them, and the photographs he took are in effect an extension of the Impressionist oeuvre.

Consider “Degas, ‘Four Dancers,'” a 44-inch-by-60-inch Ultrachrome print. There are many well-known photographs of ballerinas practicing — Cornell Capa’s “The Bolshoi Ballet School,” for instance — and none of them can help but recall Degas’s many paintings of women in tights and tutus practicing and performing. Mr. Folberg’s four young dancers, though, are consciously meant to bring the painter to mind. One thing he certainly has in common with his inspiration is that the picture is lovely.

The four girls are multiplied to eight by their reflections in the mirror; there seem to be six along the wall and two stretching. The mirror is a regular device in representations of the ballet rehearsal room, and here it lets us see two of the girls in double profile. The girls are obviously posed, but ballerinas are always posed, and each seems comfortable in her position. They wear white tutus with sleeveless bodices and long tulle skirts. Two of the girls have pink ribbons tied in a bow around their waist, with a matching ribbon around their neck, and the other two girls have blue ribbons. Soft light comes from a window above and models their delicate skin and the shapes of their heads, which are defined by hair pulled back tightly into buns. The faces we see are confident, curious, immensely charming; not just pretty, but with personalities, even character.

This is a very pleasing photograph to look at. The eye keeps traveling along the line of girls at the wall, down to the two images of the girl in the foreground, and up to and along the wall again. I have described it at length because it seems Mr. Folberg must have spent a fair amount of time thinking about and executing it. It didn’t just happen, but he makes it seem that it might have. What puzzles me is trying to figure the right criterion for judging it: Is the measure how close it comes to the master, or simply the viewer’s response to it as an independent object? I am not competent to make the former judgment, but I am ready to vote in favor of the picture’s pleasure.”

Neil Folberg
Young dancer standing, 2003
Vision Neil Folberg Gallery