Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ballet : A brief history of pointe shoes

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-67) was a French poet and critic, and described dancing as poetry with arms and legs. Ballet emerged as a distinct form of dance in Italy before the 16th cent. The first ballet combined, dance, decor, and special effects and was presented in 1581 at the French Court of Catherine di Medici. The lady herself took part. Court ballets in the 17th century were danced by males only and included opera. It was not until 1708 the first ballet for public performance marked the appearance of a separate art form.

The origins of ballet shoes were specific to the dance but often reflected the popular styles of the court. The only exceptions were shoes for those characters which required a special costume. Even when the royalty performed, as they frequently did, their costume had to be heavily laden with symbolism. Louis XIV for example had his clothes specially designed for the Royal Ballet of the Night. His Sun King costume included high heeled shoes with gilt sun buckles complete with rays which echoed the magnificently glittering motif of the whole outfit.

Extravagant courtly costume was swept away by the French Revolution and the technical requirements of the dance necessitated a change in the design of ballet shoes. Choreographic notation came into being and mythological themes were explored. The Italian influence brought elevated and less horizontal movement, and Pierre Beauchamps established the five basic ballet foot positions, we know today.

Marie Camargo introduced a shortened skirt, tights, and the first ballet slippers, allowing great freedom of movement than before. Her rival, Marie Sallé (the first female choreographer), wore a liberating, Grecian-style costume. The ballet d'action, developed c.1760 by Jean Georges Noverre, told a story through movement and facial expression. The first shoes were based on the straits worn for ballroom dancing and had no blocking in the toe. Modern ballet technique, stressing the turned-out leg and resulting variety of movement, was set down in 1820 by Carlo Blasis.

The romantic period began in 1831 with La Sylphide, first performed in 1832. Madame Marie Taglioni was an Italian ballerina best known for her ethereal style and high elevations, and was a major ballerina of the romantic period. Her performance in La Sylphide was so demanding it forced the invention of a straightened toe. Taglioni was the first to dance on points and therefore created modern ballet and with it the need for more robust shoes. As she was leaving Moscow a group of followers acquired her used dancing slippers, boiled them and ate them. As a child Queen Victoria had a Marie Tagioni doll. In 1862 Emma Livry a ballerina at the Paris Opera burnt to death when her dress caught fire during rehearsals. Her ballet shoes survived. Unblocked and strengthened solely by darning at the sides they weighed only 34 grams each, whereas Pavlova's modern blocked shoes weighed 74 grams.

By the beginning of the twentieth century dance had become so demanding that blocked shoes were essential. Early cotton wool padding had been replaced by toes stiffened with glue and darned for extra strength. Ballet shoe makers appeared in the cities where ballet was practiced. Brilliant choreography emphasised the beauty and virtuosity of the prima ballerina; the male dancer functioned only as her partner until the 20th cent, when virtuoso male dancing was revived. A major ballet company can easily go through three thousand pairs per year. Dancers are provided with one or more pairs a week and they usually look after their shoes themselves, darning them and attaching ribbons. Like athlete the dancer prefer some shoes over others. Rudolf Nureyev was reputed to try on six pairs in the wings before finding the right ones. Shoes may last only one night's performance and dancer have their preferred makers.

The standard pointe shoes are made from cardboard/leather and are weak. Ballet students are encouraged to feel the floor with their toes which means standard pointe shoe require to be "broken in" e.g. the shank will be bent or broken so that the arch looks better. Safety features such as a toe box are often omitted thus reducing the weight of the shoe but also transferring body weight to the tip of the first and second toes. Some shoe makers refuse to make pointe shoes in smaller sizes to discourage children and force trainers to wait till the child feet have grown. Ballet slippers or techniques shoes are used by younger dancers. Ribbons sewn to the shoes are tied around the ankle which gives some support to the dancer. Pointe shoes do wear very quickly and worn shoe contribute considerably to the high rates of foot injuries ballet dancers suffer. Many dancer use rosin as an anti friction cover for their toes when dancing on points.

1 comment:

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