By BOB HICKS
In Paris they were called abonnes.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg they were balletomanes.
Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario who founded New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, rolled his eyes and referred to them waspishly as “balletptomaines.”
One way or another, they are nuts: nuts for the ballet, for the dancers, for the social swirl, the easy access. The ones who know every step, and know better than the choreographers how the steps ought to be combined. The ones who give money to the company and assume they’ve bought the right to make decisions about how it’s run. The starstruck, the shoulder-rubbers, the bedazzled. The gents who love the bodies — in an entirely aesthetic sense, of course. The best friends a ballet company can have, and a bane on its existence.
The Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition “The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec,” which continues through May 11, 2008, gives an almost unseemly amount of attention to the abonnes, those wealthy and well-connected Parisian gentlemen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, by virtue of their season subscriptions to the Paris Opera and other performance halls, had unprecedented access to the backstage life. Some of Degas’ prints in the exhibition touch on the subject, but they are the compulsion of Forain and to a certain extent the exhibit as a whole, throwing the thing into a curious imbalance: Forain, by far the least important of these three artists, becomes the defining figure in the show.