Upward and Onward
We often take flight in our dreams, but in reality very few of us fly through the air without the help of a prop – a parachute, perhaps, or a hot air balloon, a high jump pole or the wings of a hang glider.
But there are exceptions, among them ballet dancers who have spent a decade or more preparing their bodies to soar into the air using only the strength of their muscles.
It wasn’t always so. Two centuries ago, a leap from the floor of a stage required minimum physical strength but maximum courage as the dancers floated into the air with the support of hidden wires.
At the King’s Theatre in London on 7 July, 1796, Charles Didelot premiered his ballet, Flore et Zéphire, in which the dancers stood as high as they could on demi pointe, took a few tottering steps and then drifted upwards as if carried by wings.
With the help of stage machinery Didelot created an illusion of weightlessness that thrilled the audience, first in London and later in Paris, but the transition from a flying machine to the power of the dancer’s own physique was slow and arduous.
Among the first ballerinas to rise to the tips of their toes with no wires to help were the French dancer, Geneviève Gosselin, and the Italian, Amalia Brugnoli, but their tiptoe tricks were not an intrinsic part of choreography until Marie Taglioni danced as La Sylphide, in Paris in 1832.
Taglioni’s shoes, made by the cobbler, Janssen of Paris, were stitched around the edges for support and strength. She squashed her feet into the tiny shoes to give the impression of standing on pointe and we can only guess what harm that might have caused to her metatarsals and toes.
Such illusions were all part of the Romantic age in which lithographs depicted the ballet shoe as a fetishistic object often poised in the midst of a fluffy cloud.
But the real shoes of the era reveal a different story. In the Haydn Museum of Austria are a number of Janssen pointe shoes described as “a one-sized tube of satin and leather that bound and squeezed the toes into a uniformly narrow pointe that had little relevance to the shape of the wearer’s foot”.
As the focus of the ballet world shifted from France to Russia, the technical demands of Marius Petipa’s choreography at the Russian Imperial ballet meant that sturdier shoes were essential. In The Sleeping Beauty, the shoes worn by the dancers who performed the fairy variations were made of newspaper and floured paste, reinforced by a cardboard insole.
Later, Russian dancers wore pointe shoes lined with white kid leather made by the Italian cobbler, Romeo Nicolini. In order to stiffen the toes, the dancers added pasteboard cut from old suitcases.
In 1893, when the Italian ballerina, Pierina Legnani, first performed the trick of 32 fouettes at the premiere of Cinderella in St Petersburg, she danced in shoes with a platform at the base, an innovation that eventually meant dancers could perform multiple turns, hops and long balances.
Photographs of Anna Pavlova in the early 20th century show her standing on the tiny tip of a pointe shoe but the images had been altered to dramatically reduce the width of the platform.
The dancer, Lydia Sokolova, explained how Pavlova customised her shoes: “Taking shoes that were made somewhat too large for her she would insert an extra support of thin leather or cork in the forward part of the shoe, but some distance from the tip, then soaking them in water, she would tread down the padded pointes as far down as the support. When they were dry she cut a slit in the rear edge of the pointe and inserted a plait of tape. Finally she would darn all over and round the pointe in the normal way she thus contrived for herself solid platforms on which to balance”.
Pavlova was a client of Nicolini along with many other Russian dancers, among them Tamara Karsavina whose shoes for a 1914 performance of the ballet, Les Papillons, are preserved in the theatre collection in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Photos clearly show that Karsavina stitched fabric across the metatarsal area for more support.
In the second quarter of the 20th century, the shanks and boxes of pointe shoes became stronger and the platforms grew wider. These shoes allowed the hardworking dancers of the nomadic companies, the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe and Colonel de Basil’s troupes, to perform multiple pirouettes and as many as 64 consecutive fouettes on pointe.
In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, dancers in the post war years struggled to cope with a short supply of shoes, a restriction that meant a lot of tedious darning and much use of shellac to reinforce old shoes.
In her memoir, Dancing on Water, Elena Tchernichova remembers her student days in Russia in the early 1950s: “We didn’t have very good pointe shoes. They were canvas, not the most comfortable material, and after the war they didn’t have any heaters to dry the glue properly”. The result was “soggy” shoes that couldn’t support her arch.
In the last three decades, when ballet choreography has become more complex, faster and more frequently incorporating off-balance steps, dancers have needed a wider range of shoes to suit the demands of both the classical repertoire and new contemporary work.
As the emphasis now is on the muscular power of the foot, calf and upper leg, rather the simple encasement of a foot in a rigid form, pointe shoemakers are offering dancers much more variety in shape, width and length.
Bloch now has 18 different pointe shoe styles, including Alpha, with a three quarter shank, has introduced thermo-morph technology (TMT)- a heat activated paste that can be molded to the shape of the foot and will soon add a revolutionary new shoe to its range.
The squashy shoe of 19th century flying sylphs has finally leapt into the 21st century.
1. Marie Taglioni's shoes made by Janssen of Paris
2. Pointe shoes lined with white kid leather made by the Italian cobbler, Romeo Nicolini.
3. Pierina Legnani in her title role Cinderella
4. Tatiana Riabouchinska darning the ballet shoes
By Valerie Lawson
Valerie Lawson is an author and freelance journalist, based in Sydney. Her work is published in a number of newspapers and magazines, and in theatre programs, including those of The Australian Ballet. She launched her website, www.dancelines.com.au in 2011.