Edgar Degas would love Washington, D.C., right now, for the place is dancing. The Joffrey Ballet has just been and gone. The American Ballet Theatre is in town until Jan. 6, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem is due in February. These are the kinds of performances that Degas went to religiously. They are the kind of art of which his art was made. Although dance is linked with the name of Degas in the popular imagination, few people realize that half of this Impressionist's mature work dealt with dance subjects - some 1,500 known pieces.Skip to next paragraph
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Degas is a graceful partner in Washington's current dance fest, for the National Gallery of Art is host, through March 6, of an exhibition entitled ''Degas: The Dancers.'' The exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth, and according to J. Carter Brown, gallery director, ''This is the first time (Degas's) objects all interrelated with dance are shown together.''
The exhibit was painstakingly pulled together over a three-year period by George Shackleford, curator of The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It is small - just 58 pieces. But it is a jewel. Each piece is there on purpose and helps accomplish Shackleford's goals: to present ''the broad range of Degas's treatments of ballet subjects . . . in every medium,'' and to reveal ''the interrelationships between so-called preparatory works and final realizations.''
Some critics complain that important works are missing in this show. But clearly Mr. Shackleford was not aiming for a vast retrospective. ''My point,'' he says, ''was to bring together selected objects in a context that teaches and gives pleasure.'' What the show teaches is that Degas was passionate about dance , and that the crux of his work method was to expand his insight and artistry through repetition - through returning to the same subject again and again. Degas called this ''a collaboration between imagination and memory,'' and the exhibit skillfully re-creates for the viewer this experience of seeing something familiar with a fresh perspective: a dancer adjusts her shoulder strap in one work after another; in charcoal, in pastel, and in oil a ballerina stretches to scratch her back; and many times we see that determined young dance student, sketched or sculptured with her feet in fourth position and her hands clasped behind her spine. To walk through this particular collection of related works is to discover that Degas was a poetic draftsman who drew from life, then in the course of years studied and redrew his own drawings, searching for essence. ''Art does not expand,'' he wrote, ''It distills itself.'' The show makes this point vividly.
The exhibit presents Degas's work in five adjoining galleries - small intimate spaces that do not overpower the art. Each room centers on a theme that offers particular insight into Degas the man and artist. Room 1, the ''Opera Ballet,'' introduces us to the splendid entertainment that was the height of 19 th-century Parisian pastime. As a subscriber to one of the three weekly opera performances, Degas had free run of the theater. Looking at the works on display here, it is quickly evident that Degas often drew from these privileged backstage positions.