Tag Archives: Marie Taglioni

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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Pointe: From Trick To Trade

The pointe shoe, along with the tutu, has its place firmly in ballet iconography. One of the most common questions posed to ballet dancers, male or female, must be “do you dance on your toes?” While dancing en pointe is required of every female classical dancer, if it is to avoid becoming an artefact, new ways of employing the technique will have to be introduced.

What is now a finely-honed technique began life as a gimmick. After Charles Didelot’s contraption that allowed dancers, suspended on wires, to stand on tip-toe, choreographers began experimenting with ways of recreating the illusion in different ways. Marie Taglioni first danced on a prototype pointe show in the opera Robert Le Diable – it was no more than a satin ballet shoe, heavily darned at the tip. Today pointe shoes offer much more support, which in turn allows more freedom and variety in the choreography that can be performed in them.

Technique has always been the servant of repertoire. The technical feats and impressive control we associate with pointe work today were arrived at through ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle and the works of Marius Petipa: the requirements of the choreography dictating the rigours of the training.

The training of pointe work is an integral part of classical ballet training, and the two have developed simultaneously. From the romantic and classical to the neo-classical of Balanchine and the de-constructionist of Forsythe, pointe work progressed in tandem with the choreographic demands.

While the pointe shoe is being largely left behind by modern ballet choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson, many choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon, continue to employ it in a traditional way. Given the fragile nature of ballets, those which feature the point shoe most prominently are the classics, those ballets where the pointe technique came of age. If the technique is to continue to grow and to be artistically relevant, we need to look outside the classical tradition.

Wayne McGregor, the controversial resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, is very much from outside the classical tradition. His schooling and influences are free from the shackles of the Royal Ballet heritage; his works show little deference to the resident choreographers who have gone before him. The result of the meeting of his background and the pointe shoe-clad dancers is an entirely new movement vocabulary and the pointe show has been given a new lease of life. After looking back to move forward for so long, if we want to keep the pointe shoe from the museum shelf, we need to start looking elsewhere.

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