Closely related to the pastel Deux danseuses, circa 1897 (National Museum, Stockholm; L. 1296), this drawing is one of a series of late works in which two or more dancers are seen close-up and half-length. In the present work Degas captures the dancers in the act of making last minute adjustments to their hair and costumes, presumably before they go on stage. The dancer in the foreground appears independently in a related pastel study (Private collection; L. 1297) and she is repeated with a less developed version of her companion in a counterproof reworked with pastel (Private collection; L. 1296bis). In the final version of this subject Degas retains the striking contrast of green and reddish tones, and uses the latter color in the costumes of the dancers. Degas repeated the pose, but in reverse, in Danseuses rajustant leur coiffure (Private collection; L. 1298).
One of the most distinctive shifts in Degas' working practice in later life was towards the sequence or series. Rather than create a unique statement of his chosen subject, in the form of a single drawing, pastel or oil painting, he would generate a succession of near-identical variants that eventually formed a "family" of compositions, some with just two or three members, others extending to twenty or thirty related works. Though some of his contemporaries have become celebrated for their sequential canvases, such as Monet's Rouen Cathedral cycle and Cézanne's repeated views of Mont Saint-Victoire, there is no precedent for the pervasiveness of Degas' later serial practice, which accounted in his last decades for the overwhelming majority of his pictures (R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, National Gallery, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 186).
Kendall has pointed out the importance of Degas' almost exclusive reliance on charcoal and pastel in these late drawings, allowing for the utmost intensity in the black contour lines and among the color relationships in the compositions. Also notable in these late works is the use of tracing, by which Degas could repeat the vague outlines of a composition, then explore the full range of expressive variations inherent in the pose (including the "flipping" of an image in the reverse direction) or experiment in different chromatic schemes. This method also enabled Degas to build up complex figure compositions with two or more dancers, and to exploit the most effective possibilities resulting from the counterpoint of multiple figures.