Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Cult of the Pointe Shoe

Along with the tutu, the pointe shoe has long been part of cultural iconography and at the forefront of public perception of classical ballet. However, when ballet as we know it today was developed around the time of August Vestris, the pointe shoe was nowhere to be seen.  Much like today, the audience in the early 19th century loved a trickster and when Italian grotteschi performer Amalia Brugnoli yanked herself up on to her tippy-toes, everyone wanted part of it. Marie Taglioni, far from being a virtuoso, set to work on her own version Brugnoli’s trick; what resulted was a technique of floating off the ground until she was connected to it only by the ends of her toes, and thus a legend was born. With little more than some darned satin seperating flesh from floor, dancing en pointe provided the perfect otherworldly aquality we now associate with creatures of 19th century ballets – sylphs, ondines, willis, dryads and the like.

As with every walk of life, as soon as a skill is perfected, someone comes along and takes it to another level. In this case, the floaty pointe work of the Romantic era gave way to the new virtuosi of the Russian Imperial ballet – when Taglioni flitted about as La Sylphide in 1832 she would scarcely have fathomed Pierina Legnani’s 32 fouettés en pointe 60 years later.

As the decades went past and skills en pointe were second nature for the female ballet dancer, the discipline had to expand somehow. With ever shorted tutu-skirts, the focus was now well and truly on the feet and, as ballet is concerns with the aesthetic, the next question was “how do we make our feet nicer?” Pointe until the 20th century had been a case of function over form, out of necessity, but with advances in shoemaking, dancers were ever more concerned with how the curve of the instep finished off their classical line. As the 20th century went on, we can see that  dancers went from being en pointe in the true sense, to being “over” pointe. Once a dancers weight is gone past the vertical, in search of a bulging instep, that connection with the floor and the upward lift from it, is gone.

Carlotta Brianza

Once a shift in aesthetic has occured, it is hard to ever go back. A young dancer idolising Svetlana Zakharova might turn their nose up at Carlotta Brianza, the first Aurora. Feet have become hard currency in this business, and more often than not they are the first assessed and assessable attribute of a dancer. In the space of two centuries the art of pointe work has moved on significantly, while ballet steps themselves have remained. Where the pointe shoe will go from here is hard to tell, but it will keep evolving; however, in order to keep it from straying too far, it would be worth, every now and again, thinking of how Taglioni managed to do it without toe-pads!

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