The Eternal Appeal of the Pointe Shoe
DECEMBER 2016/JANUARY 2017
“If the vertical position most basically reflects the human essence, then standing on the toes represents man’s apotheosis, that is his highest conceivable and imaginable expression.” – Akim Volynsky, The Book of Exaltations, 1925
“Do we simply say that the technology of the pointe shoe is the apotheosis of classical ballet? If so, then where do we go from here? “ – Garry Stewart, 2016
Contemporary Perspectives on Pointe.
Emma Sandall spoke to choreographers for different points of view
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat is the place of pointe work today? How are contemporary choreographers using this beautiful though somewhat controversial device, which reinforces the female stereotype both aesthetically and literally via a rather painful instrument – the pointe shoe?
Born during 19th century romanticism, pointe work is a strange and remarkable innovation, and it’s pretty hard to imagine the evolution of classical ballet without it. In a way, rising to pointe was inevitable, as ballerinas aspired for ever greater refinement, poise and line – the peak being literally the tips of their toes.
But 200 years on in a very different world is it still an emblem, indeed an expectation of the form? I asked eight of today’s choreographers creating works both inside and outside of ballet companies for their ideas about pointe work; why they do or don’t use it, and whether they see pointe work as a tool evolving with the times.
Artistic Director Expression Dance Company, Townsville, Queensland
“I think pointe work is beautiful when the dancer is trained properly to use it. When I work choreographing with a classical company, I like to use it, as it gives a streamlined beauty to the work. Choreographically, it opens different doors and gives the work a different look. I like that I am able to choreograph unusual turns and use off balance shapes, which look more precarious on pointe.
I try to find unusual ways for the pointe work to be used, so it uses the classical technique, but in a more contemporary way. It keeps the work I create for classical companies very different from the work I make for my own company.
When I was a young dancer, pointe work was my favourite part. Often the female dancers I choreograph on in a ballet company prefer to be on pointe. When I am invited to create work for a classical company, using pointe work is usually part of the brief, as this is important to the aesthetic of the company.
I would not use it for dancers in my own company, as we are a contemporary company and pointe work is not part of the established training path of a contemporary dancer. If I did use it, it would need to have a very specific reason, or make a statement about something.
I feel that pointe work empowers women. They look strong and in control, and when used well the dancers have a grace and strength and extension to their line. I have not often seen men dance in pointe shoes, and when they do it is often comedic. I do not think our eyes are trained to appreciate men in pointe shoes, although I see no physical reason why they should not. But it is certainly not the classical aesthetic.”
Artistic Director and principal choreographer, Staatstheater Nurnburg, Germany
“Pointe work has always been with me as I come from a classical ballet background. I find it an interesting instrument and I use it in several of my works, however only in pieces that call for it — always to introduce a different way of approaching the technique, to challenge my choreographic language and to enhance the virtuosity and personality of the dancers.
The source of inspiration for each piece I choreograph differs very much. It can be anything: a concept, an idea, a poem or an image. Reflecting on it, I must say that the pieces I have done on pointe always have had music as first point of inspiration. Not necessarily classical music, but always music that I felt needed pointe work to be fully represented.
As a choreographer I tend to connect with storytelling even when my pieces spring from an abstract idea — there is always a connection with a real thought or emotion. Therefore it is never just about the movement but about the feeling the movement creates when we see it.
I personally have never used pointe work for a male dancer but in my mind it is not gender specific; the proof for me is She Was Black by Mats Ek .”
Resident Choreographer, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne, Victoria
…Pointe work adds another dimension to line: an infinity beyond where the line actually physically ends.
“I am of the classical wagon. I like the aesthetic. It’s the line. Classicism infers a highly evolved craft and classical ballet is a very stylised form requiring great discipline. This can be seen to some as limiting but I enjoy working in that discipline and feel it still allows a never-ending scope for invention.
Pointe work adds another dimension to line: an infinity beyond where the line actually physically ends. It extends the line into the floor and out into space. It can be exquisitely refined and it is developing all the time. It’s becoming more visceral. Choreographers, like William Forsythe , working with dancers of the likes of Sylvie Guillem encouraged that development. Ballet dancers and their dancing became ever more athletic and where the style for dancing on pointe had been typically up out of the floor, dancing on pointe became more grounded and more fluid and connected.
I am always striving to see pointe work look like a natural extension of the foot and movement on pointe as seamless, effortless and connected to the floor as walking. However, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that a fundamental part of the beauty of pointe work, at least within the classical aesthetic, is the refinement and almost inhuman, feline grace is gives to movement. Ultimately, any choreography will only look as good as it is danced and the same of course applies to singing, acting or playing an instrument and in this respect, classical ballet is ruthlessly discriminatory. Because “line” is paramount, a dancer’s physique is also paramount, so legs and feet like Silvie Guillem or Darcy Bussell contribute enormously to that look. Indeed it is the feline plasticity of such dancers’ pointe technique that has, to a large extent, changed the look of contemporary ballet.
Androgyny is increasingly prevalent in our culture and is certainly reflected in the arts – particularly in something as physical as dancing. I think it says something though that so few choreographers seem interested in exploring pointe work for men. Perhaps also because of the increasing prevalence of occupational health and safety?
Choreographer, dancer and director of Stephanie Lake Company, Melbourne
“Beautiful but brutal. I immediately think of blood soaked pointe shoes and nail-less toes, interestingly! At one end of my thinking I see it as an aestheticised subjugation of women – agonising foot binding bizarrely made to look like lightness. (Feel same way about stiletto heels at times…). On the other end I see it as an incredible discipline, overcoming pain and intense training to achieve a rarefied skill.
I think of a work like William Forsythe’s brilliant In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. It is superb and the extremity of that physicality is partly reliant on the use of pointe – the lines are almost violent and something about that hardness into the floor – hooflike – seems important for the work. So I guess in the right hands it’s a tool like any other. There are many choreographers and directors that use pain and extremity to convey something visceral in performance. The interesting paradox with pointe work though is that it’s traditionally used to convey lightness and ephemerality.
Pointe work was a compulsory subject at Victorian College of the Arts when I trained there but I disputed it as a compulsory subject on the grounds that I’d never done pointe work before and that it was potentially dangerous – definitely wildly painful – and most likely irrelevant to my future in contemporary dance. I won that battle and got to do ‘boys’ ballet instead. And I interviewed the staff about their perceptions of pointe work. I don’t think it’s compulsory anymore.
I can’t see why men can’t and shouldn’t dance on pointe. It would really be in the hands of the choreographer and dancer to transcend the potential parody. In this age of gender fluidity there is no reason why there can’t be more subversion of gender norms.”
Artistic Director, Australian Dance Theatre, Adelaide, South Australia
“At first I had to learn what pointe shoes could and couldn’t do. This I learnt in the first ballet work I choreographed which was a piece called The Centre and its Opposite which I created in 2008 for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The dancers were terrific and I sensed they really enjoyed showing what was possible. I got the occasional ‘ahem’ when I asked them to do something a bit ridiculous. So really, it was the dancers who coached me, and with me asking lots of questions along the way. I found the whole experience hugely exciting as it was something I had wanted to do for such a long time. And for a ballet company they gave me a very long rehearsal period with plenty of time to experiment. A rare treat – as I now realise. But you could see the time invested in the work. By opening night it was rock solid. The dancers were phenomenal. The work was very much based upon an explosive, forceful representation of the body and the women dominated the stage.
Do we simply say that the technology of the pointe shoe is the apotheosis of classical ballet? If so, then where do we go from here? It’s a conundrum because so much has been done with the pointe shoe, as with the arabesque and the pirouette, as syntax within a finite language. If the primary impulse behind the evolution of the pointe shoe was to reflect the romantic ideals of the female dancer as the ethereal, other worldly being, then perhaps in the late 20th century it came to facilitate speed and power as views of women shifted within the broader culture and then seeped into classical ballet.
I think my interest in the pointe shoe certainly hung off this potential for incredible speed, particularly in turning, that the pointe shoe permits. There’s also something creature like seeing the body on pointe. A kind of zoomorphic transformation of the female form that makes total sense considering the themes of metamorphosis that are rife in the big story ballets particularly Swan Lake, Giselle and Coppelia. I’ve seen some contemporary choreographers such as Marie Chouinard exploit this aspect of the pointe shoe and exaggerate this. But this is more like a novelty and doesn’t really aim to support a new methodology for their use.”
Artistic Director, Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company, Germany
I think pointe work is an incredible tool and device. It gives so many technical possibilities. I think it still needs to be demystified and explored — taken it out of the world of ballet. It is currently still a slave of classical ballet, of that aesthetic. And don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic, so that is not a criticism.
When I choreograph, about half my works use pointe shoes and half not. You need to spend a long time in the studio developing the new material. Pointe work adds another layer, it’s like adding another dimension. I’m drawn to do it simply because I feel the need. I like the challenge. I think if you feel like you have the capability of choreographing on pointe, which I always felt like I had, when you don’t use it you feel like you’re missing something. This other dimension!
I think the best way to choreograph for pointe is to not think that you are choreographing with pointe shoes. The moment you think that, you get stuck with the baggage of the technique of ballet. Don’t think about the pointe shoes! Choreograph and then solve the pointe shoes issue after.
I think that after William Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem there is still a lot to be done. We cannot say that we have hit a dead point. There is definitely a lot more to explore. It is just that you have to dedicate time to the studio to try things out. Before you can develop a language you have to fine out all the particles that compose that language. Vast amounts of research and work. You can then create sentences and a language. It is difficult and hugely time consuming.
In general I do not think that pointe work reinforces the female stereotype. I think that is an ignorant interpretation of pointe choreography and pas de deux. People read a work the way they want to read it. They often impose their own narrative on choreography to translate it into something that makes sense in their minds. In my last work we used pointe work in a violent and strong way and some critics commented that the woman is used as an object in the piece. This was their interpretation. So it is society imposing this idea for that is the only way they can read it. It is not in the intention of the work.
Although it does interest me to choreograph for men on pointe, I don’t know if I will ever go that direction. I haven’t had a sparkle in my mind that makes me want to do that. I haven’t seen a door to go through that excites me yet in wanting to try.
Artistic Director, Force Majeure, Sydney
“I grew up as a young child wanting to be a ballerina. I seriously thought I could be one for a while. I couldn’t wait to get my first pair of pointe shoes which I still have packed away today as a souvenir. My impression of pointe work was destroyed by the reality of actually trying to do it. All those beautiful ballerinas from the Australian Ballet that I would pin up on my wall and aspire to be like made it look easy, comfortable and effortless. It was never that way for me.
I have moved so far away from the classical form with my performance work. I’d like to think those who have a strong classical connection might be the ones to want to challenge the form. Me, I’m not. I have never imagined how I would use pointe in a new work as I don’t think it suits my aesthetic. I’m more likely to put sneakers on my dancers feet or high heels.”
Resident Choreographer, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne
“I grew up with women on pointe. For me it was ubiquitous and as such I was relatively unquestioning. I had the usual ideas about why we use it: that it accentuates the line created with whole body; that it delineates the female from male. It really defines the male/female divide and in such a way it is choreographically useful in terms of juxtaposition.
I think that society is really more primal than we like to admit. The audience has a yearning to see male and female differences on stage. These gender stereotypes strike a chord. They resonate. So pointe work is a powerful device in this distinction. However, I am conflicted too. I believe in a fundamental equality of the sexes. They should have the same options, the same footing. Therefore, when I create for pointe I really want it to reflect the functionality of what it’s like to dance on pointe and employ and manipulate its strengths in that way.
For me, creating on pointe and off pointe are quite different processes. When I choreograph for pointe it is more aligned to the music and springs from the music. There is a happy marriage between ballet lexicon and classical music. It is like a back and forth conversation. Both have discipline, form and structure. They are complimentary. Both are codified. Off pointe, my choreography is a different process. I start with a concept and devise movement completely independent of music. The music enters much later.
How pointe has changed in terms of the message it delivers is that there is a change from the idea of the ethereal. The ballerina is more empowered now.
There is a desire to project powerful women. The pointe shoe has become a device to make her powerful and to make her strong. She’s on pointe but she’s still planted, still grounded.
I think men on pointe are destined to be a niche. It is really hard to transcend the gimmick. I do not condemn it or think it’s not valid. It can be done with total artistic integrity. I would use men on pointe if I thought it was going to benefit what I was trying to create. I can imagine it for character development.”
“If the technology of the pointe shoe is the apotheosis of classical ballet where do we go from here?” Garry Stewart asked. With William Forsythe’s extraordinary choreography for Sylvie Guillem at the end of the 1980s it seems like we already glimpsed an end. Where to once this particular palette of virtuosity, extremity and immaculate articulation has been exhausted? It’s clear that for choreographers working within the ballet world, pointe work is still a very popular device but they continue to use it almost exclusively as a technique for women.
Over the last thirty years, dancers have become ever more athletic and adventurous and current pointe choreography often pushes their daring even further. The shapes and feats that these ‘contemporary’ ballerinas perform carry with them new meanings and give choreographers a new palette of movement metaphor. From my perspective I think that dancers and their physiques/physicality will continue to change. And the pointe shoe will be used as an expressive tool so long as there are dancers learning how to use it. These dancers may well be men, women and other genders besides as our expectations, values, stories and ideas slowly evolve.
In 1913 Vaslav Nijinsky debated dancing on pointe to indicate lightness in Jeux, a ballet which focused on games. He chose not to. Mats Ek put a male dancer on pointe in She Was Black to challenge our perceptions. Marie Chouinard put her whole cast on pointe in bODY_rEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATION, as well as using crutches, rope, prostheses, horizontal bars, and harnesses, as a means of liberating and fettering the dancers’ movements. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui uses a corps of both male and female dancers on pointe in In Memoriam 2 which has the effect of a hovering sea of human diversity – the mixture of men and women give the traditional image of a bourréeing corps de ballet a contemporary angle. These exceptions may or may not amount to something in the end. It will depend upon whether they contain a meaning or an aesthetic which is in someway, in anyway, in alignment with the direction of society and what audiences like to see.
Pointe work continues to be a female technique because of how we do it and the pretty feminine shoe. If it is to evolve further, that aesthetic might have to evolve too. Street dancer Lil Buck and his interpretation of the Dying Swan shows us how this may happen. He is dancing on pointe though not in pink satin pointe shoes but in trainers so it does not look effeminate or bizarre in anyway. It is quite exquisite and proof that there is a lot further for pointe work to go and that men can indeed join in the toenail grinding.