A history of pointe shoes is also a history of pointe technique. They evolved together; they created each other. But the pointe shoe itself is seldom given recognition for its role in steering the development of technique.

The Italian princess Catherine de Medici married the French Henry II and introduced ballet de cour, or "court ballet" to the Court of France in the sixteenth century. From these early productions featuring masked and costumed couriers, dancing at court developed into lavish spectacles and extravaganzas, from which a codified vocabulary of steps evenutually emerged--the same steps and same basic positions that you do every day in class. In the 1600's, King Louis XIV especially loved dancing and starring in court productions. When he grew too old and fat to perform he continued to be one of ballet's greatest patrons. He founded the Academie Royale de Danse, which would later become the Paris Opera Ballet. Ballet had a political advantage as well in that Lois surely used his ballets, in which the courtiers bowed and curtsied to him in a variety of elaborate and elegant ways, to celebrate and glorify himself, to associate himself with divinity, and to reinforce the power of the throne.

It was however, a man's game. The ballerina as we know her had not yet come into existence. Women really couldn't participate in the way men could, in large part because of their clothes. Men got to wear tights, which gave them more freedom of movement--they were able to jump and beat. Women had to wear heavy wigs and enormous headdresses, full, heavy skirts and shoes with heels, and--don'f forget-- tight corsets that restricted breathing, not to mention bending. There were, of course, popular female dancers in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century, such as Mme. Lafontaine, Mlle. Subligny and Marie Prevost, but they were limited by their costumes. The men got to do all of the good steps. To make matters worse, as ballet dancing moved out of the ballrooms of royal palaces and onto the proscenium stage, women had to overcome society's disapproval of female performers.

However, around 1730 danse haute superseded danse basse, dancers took to the air, rather than just move elegantly from lovely pose to lovely pose, they began to jump, hop, and leap. And women began to rebel against their restrictive costumes. Marie Salle' literally let her hair down and donned looser clothes for her ballet d'action, and her rival, Marie Anne Cupis de Camargo took the heels from her shoes, and Scandale shortened her skirts to better perform the flashy new steps that had heretofore been done exclusively by men: entrechat quatre and cabriole.

The Eighteenth Century saw an increased prominence of the female dancer and the expansion of the ballet vocabulary to include more jumps and turns. Among the other stars of the era were Mlle. Lyonnais, famed for her gargoulliades, and Fraulein Heinel, who dazzled Europe with her multiple pirouettes--but on demi-pointe.

Marie Taglioni often gets the credit and the blame for being the first to dance on pointe. But no one really knows for sure. It is established that in 1832 Marie Taglioni danced in the full length La Sylphide on pointe. But almost certainly there were dancers before her who rose onto the tops of their toes. It's even possible that Mme. Camargo had done so one hundred years before. There are references in newspaper accounts of various ballerinas with "fantastic toes" or "falling of her toes. " Taglioni herself most likely danced on pointe before La Sylphide.

But, whoever was first, it was Taglioni who pioneered and developed the technique and who revolutionized ballet as a result. She transformed toe dancing. What had been merely a stunt and kind of circus trick became a means of artistic expression, a dramatic as well as a technical feat. Her grace, lightness, elevation and style earned her an adoring audience and a brilliant career. In Russia her fans lover her so much that they cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce!

Before we consider what Taglioni did and how she did it, let's look at why she rose on pointe at all. The 1830's were the heart of the Romantic Age. The artists and poets of this era--Keats, Byron, Shelly and Chopin--were often concerned with beauty, passion, with nature and with the supernatural, with the power of love. The great Romantic ballets of the time are almost always passionate but tragic encounters between a mortal, terrestrial man and supernatural female. The ballerina's characters are usually inhabitants of the supernatural world: La Sylphide, the wilis in Giselle, the water nymph Ondine, the fairy in La Peri, an din later 19th Century ballets, the swan maidens in Swan Lake, more fairies in Sleeping Beauty, the Shades in La Bayadere. Swanhilda in Coppelia is just about the only healthy flesh and blood female around. This supernatural woman is the symbol of beauty, nature, love, the supernatural, imoortality. The ballerina is alway depicted as a woman not bound to the earth, so dainty she can balance on a flower. There was actually a stage prop made to look like a flower that Taglioni stood on.

In her long white billowy Romantic tutu, starkly simple compared with the ornate constumes of the previous century, she is all feminine purity and virtue. When she rises on pointe she achieves an ethereal lightness, an otherworldly grace.She enters the realm of the spirit. She appears to hover and skim the stage weightlessly. Picture the slyphide, floating on the windowsill then flying up the chimney. Pointe dancing was not just another virtuosic feat like the first entrechat quatre was, it was a means of enhancng the drama by extending the female charactor. Lincoln Kirstein called it "the speech of the inexpressible." Our poor earthbound male in enraptured by the beauty, purity, grace, etc. of thi idealized female, but messing around with the supernatural usually ends badly. Except of course in Giselle, one of the most popular and enuring ballets of all time, in which love triumphs over everything, even death.

What exactly did these Romantic ballerinas do technically? What was the height of ballet virtuosity in the Mid-Ninteenth Century? As far as pointe work it included, among other steps, the single pirouette and the pique'. The dancer's alignment was also different. She was less vertical, less straight up and down. Her hips were released back and her upper body tilted slightly forward. She was not "over her feet" as are today's dancers. How could she without support in her shoes?

Taglioni wore soft satin slippers that fit like kid gloves. They had a leather sole and some darning on the sides and under, but not on the tip. That's all. It must have been a lot like standing barefoot. The blocked pointe shoe with a stiff sole as we know it today did not evolve until much later.

By the end of the century the ballerina faced new challenges. In Russia, in St. Petersburg, Marius Petipa was creating what would become the classics: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, La Bayadere, Don Quixote, and many more. At this time there were two main--and rival-- schools of ballet in Europe: the French School, which Petipa brought to Russia, and the Italian school of which Cecchetti is a famous example. When the two of the great ballerinas of the Italian School, Virginia Zucchi and Pierina Legnani, came to St. Petersburg, their visit has a profound effect on the history of ballet.

Whereas the French school empasized refinement, the Italian school was more athletic; its dancers developed powerfull calves and thighs. The Italian school pushed technique to the limit in order to achieve dazzling virtuosic feats. The Italians had a secret weapon, a closely guarded trade secret, for turning multiple pirouettes: spotting. They also had better shoes.

Pierina Legnani was the first to do thirty-two fouettes on pointe and she caused a huge sensation. Soon all the Russian ballerinas had t catch up technically but found they could not manage in their soft shoes. So they had their shoemakers create harder shoes for them. The Italian ballerinas, by the way, were dancing in Italian-made shoes that were actually quite soft, harder than Taglioni's but nothing like today's shoes.

The Italians contributed to another change--the shorter daancing skirt that eventually evolved into the tutu. Virginia Zucchi was a great beauty and she refused to dance in a costume that, in her words, were fit for her grandmother. So she flouted the Imperial Theatre's strict regulations and the ballet world enjoyed another delightful scandal due to a ballerina's hemline.

The great Russian ballerinas of the day, Kscessinska, Preobrajenska, and Karsavina managed in soft Italian shoes, but other dancers and students required more support so in Russia their pointe shoe grew quite hard and stiff. Even today Russian shoes are generally stiffer, and Russian techique calles for "pouncing" onto pointe more than rolling through, another example of the interdependence of pointe technique and pointe shoes. Do they pounce because their shoes will not let them roll, or do they prefer hard shoes because they like to pounce? Or both?

In any case, improvements to pointe shoes empowered dancers to do more on pointe, and thus expanded the ballerina's vocabulary and the art as a whole. Petipa, as a choreographer, made great use of this new "equipment" for the feet. He made multipe pirouettes on pointe, sustained balances and promenades and hops on pointe all obligatory for the ballerina. Petipa's hallmark Grand Pas requires the ballerina to perform all of the above if not more.

This is not to suggest that Petipa's pointe work was virtuosity for it's own sake. It still served a dramatic purpose in characterizing the supernatural, idealized woman. Odile's thirty-two fouettes in Swan Lake are meant to hympnotiize Siegfried. The fairies in Sleeping Beauty use their pointes to flit about magically. Princess Aurora's awesome balances in the same ballet show us what a poised and elegant princess she is when courted by her suitors.

Because she could do more on pointe, the ballerina was required to do more on pointe. As choreography asked more and more of the ballerina she had to ask more and more of her shoes.The shanks have become harder, the boxes more reinforced, the platform bigger and bigger. It is said that Pavlowa, who was among the greatest of the Russian ballerinas, and who still danced in relatively soft shoes, is said to have photographs of herself retouched to remove some of the tip. Although she was actually dancing on the newer broader platform, she wished to preserve that Nineteenth Century Romantic ideal of balancing on the smallest, pointiest tip.

Now, at the end of the Twentieth Century, the ballerina must be extremely versatile. She must master not only the grueling pointe work of the Petipa Grand Pas but also the wider range of choreographic challenges that have accumulated since then. Choreography may call for less verticality, or for getting up onto pointe from different angles. It may include endless expressive bourees as in Fokine's The Dying Swan, or smooth, backward traveling releves in arabesque as in Les Sylphides. It might require shank breaking forced arched movements as in some of Forsythe's work. It might have quirky, weighted steps and a bent support leg on pointe as in some of Tharp's dances. Or, it might demand tremendous speed and a soft, supple rolling motion through the pointe shoe as in Balanchine's ballets.

It would be impossibe to perform Twentieth Century dances in Ninteenth Century shoes, and it is also difficult to do the opposite. In the 1800's in Denmark, Bournonville choreographed for ballerinas who wore soft Ninteenth Century shoes. His choreography demands lots of bouncy jumping and brilliant footwork, but it does not ask for Petipa-style sustained balances and multiple pirouettes on pointe. When much, much later the Royal Danish Ballet decided to put some of the Bournonnville pirouettes and balances on full pointe instead of demi-pointe, the ballerinas had a real lproblem: how to get a shoe soft enough for the jumps but hard enough for the balances and turns. Some resorted to wearing a pointe shoe on one foot and a hard one on the other. They would jump with the soft one and use the hard one as the supporting leg for the balances and pirouettes.

For ballerinas today, pointe work is completely integrated with bllet technique. Even jazz and modern choreographers demand that women wear pointe shoes even though the steps are from a different idiom. Often the shoes needed to perform such choreography must be extremely suple and responsive and simultaneously supportive and durable.

But the problem is that most pointe shoes are still made from the same materials that were used in Pavlova's day. Although pointe shes have evolved in that they have become harder and boxier, their basic construction materials are still antiquated: Leather, burlap, paper, glue, and nails. This creates an enormous problem for today's dancers. A new pointe shoe is overly stiff because the shanks and boxes are excessively hard. Once it is broken in enough to allow articulation of the foot for easy jumping and rolling through demi-pointe, it lasts a very short amount of time. It's more painful than it needs to be and it does nothing to minimize the trauma of dancing on hard floors. Non-profit dance companies, and dancers themselves can ill-afford non-durable shoes. This problem cannot be solved by medieval shoemaking mathods and materials. It would be impossibe to perform Twentieth Century dances in Ninteenth Century shoes, and it is also difficult to do the opposite. In the 1800's in Denmark, Bournonville choreographed for ballerinas who wore soft Ninteenth Century shoes. His choreography demands lots of bouncy jumping and brilliant footwork, but it does not ask for Petipa-style sustained balances and multiple pirouettes on pointe. When much, much later the Royal Danish Ballet decided to put some of the Bournonnville pirouettes and balances on full pointe instead of demi-pointe, the ballerinas had a real lproblem: how to get a shoe soft enough for the jumps but hard enough for the balances and turns. Some resorted to wearing a pointe shoe on one foot and a hard one on the other. They would jump with the soft one and use the hard one as the supporting leg for the balances and pirouettes.

For ballerinas today, pointe work is completely integrated with bllet technique. Even jazz and modern choreographers demand that women wear pointe shoes even though the steps are from a different idiom. Often the shoes needed to perform such choreography must be extremely suple and responsive and simultaneously supportive and durable.

But the problem is that most pointe shoes are still made from the same materials that were used in Pavlova's day. Although pointe shes have evolved in that they have become harder and boxier, their basic construction materials are still antiquated: Leather, burlap, paper, glue, and nails. This creates an enormous problem for today's dancers. A new pointe shoe is overly stiff because the shanks and boxes are excessively hard. Once it is broken in enough to allow articulation of the foot for easy jumping and rolling through demi-pointe, it lasts a very short amount of time. It's more painful than it needs to be and it does nothing to minimize the trauma of dancing on hard floors. Non-profit dance companies, and dancers themselves can ill-afford non-durable shoes. This problem cannot be solved by medieval shoemaking mathods and materials.

Furthermore, female ballet dancers suffer foot and ankle injuries that are not endured by male ballet dancers or by female modern dancers; they are clearly the result of pointe work. Most of the world's theaters were built not for dance but for opera or drama. Very few have sprung wooden floors. Instead they are often wood laid directly on concrete. Jumping on such stages is painful and traumatic. It can also be noisy. Traditional shomaking materials have to be thick and hard to provide enough support, but loud clomping pointe shoes undermine the illusion of effortless grace for which the ballerina always strives. When a dancer has a chance to do one of the great ballerina roles, she will usually be portraying one of the ethereal, supernatural creatures described before. Noisy pointe shoes make the dancer seem heavy and earthbound- undermining the ballerina's performance both dramatically and technically.

Why has it taken so long for modern materials to be used in pointe shoes? Because ballet is n art for its athleticism is often overlooked. Our society glorifies the sweaty football player whose hard breathing is a sign of his prowess, but the ballerina must conceal her exertions under a serene and radient smile. Unlike sports heros, ballerinas make it look easy. We forget that they are athletes and that like other athletes they use equipment. As with any athletic equipment, improvements in design and materials have raised technical standards. Pointe shoes need to be brought up to date.

The history of pointe technique shows us how, more than once, a singularly great ballerina would achieve new technical feats and thereby set a higher level of dancing. These great ballerinas wore what ever the shoe of the day were, with perhaps a small modification of her own. For example, Taglioni added darning to her slippers, Legnani had her slippers made with a slightly stiffer box, Pavlova reinforced her shoes with a leather shank. But in order to equal whoever the great dancer was, her contemporaries would often modify their own shoes. So then everybody would be wearing the newest shoe in order to meet the new technical standard. With such improved shoes subsequent generations would in turn achieve even greater feats.

It is certain that the introduction of stiffer shoes made possible new technical achievements not previously known, and that further achievements were the result of still more enhanced footwear worn by supremely talented dancers. Improvements in the footwear improved the art. Pointe shoes and pointe technique have evolved together over the past century and a half; there is no reason for progress to stop.

Article obtained from Gaynor Minden's homepage: http://www.dancer.com








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