Sunday, June 24, 2012

The tyranny of pointe shoes

Ready, aim, fire: Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in McGregor's Dyad 1929. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
There are many reasons to be infatuated with ballet, but one major element has become a double-edged sword—the use of pointe shoes. Yes, they elevate the dancer off the floor for a weightless look; they make for sleek lines and endless weaponry/spider metaphors; spinning on them looks effortless and just plain cool; and they're usually pink and shiny. But as much as I have affection for them, I think they've fostered a sort of modern day tyranny over ballet.

Choreographers seem obsessed with using them, even when there's a lot of running, or work not on pointe. (I'm always fearful that a dancer will slip; occasionally one does, and it's nearly always because of the ludicrous lack of traction from walking or running, flat-footed, on pointe shoes.) Obviously traditions within the classical repertory, such as Swan Lake (which ABT performs this week), demand their use, but it is surprising to me that so much new choreography utilizes pointe. It is the one choice that will automatically dictate many things within a ballet, more than the music or story.

For women dancers, it will implicate many of the standard steps done to emphasize the line on pointe: pirouettes, fouettés, developpés, arabesques, attitudes, and the thrilling fast chainés or piqués. Even the smaller steps are made extra refined, such as tendus, échappés, and standing on pointe. I won't deny that these lines are superbly elongated and pleasing. At the same time, it will vastly inhibit a dancer's ability to run, walk, corner, and change direction. This reluctance will be diminished as much as the dancer is able, but she will be reticent about these simple human moves.

It will induce the choreographer into more traditional role casting. For the guys, this means more partnering women in pirouettes, which leads to making very pretty poses in arabesque on relevé, with the man always behind, shadowing and supporting the woman. Which leads to dips and tilts where the toe shoe is the only point of contact between the woman and the earth, dragging the woman on the box of her toe shoe, then little lifts, then big lifts through splits, or overhead. It's a predictable menu of actions that limits artistic expression, even as it produces the desired traditional effects and predicates gender and psychological determinations.

Then there is the issue of technique. We in New York are spoiled brats, seeing the very best of the world's ballet dancers all the time, and whining about how there's too much to see. This means Osipova, Copeland, and Murphy at ABT, and Peck, Fairchild, and Mearns at NYCB as our usual fare. These women are basically superheroes, making this gritty, tough work look like swinging in a hammock. But not everyone is Tiler Peck.

The complicated process of physical selection, the mastery of dancing on pointe at a standard of world-class excellence, plus the ease of global travel and dissolution of nationalistic tendencies, has allowed the finest dancers to become our home-town heroes, but these standards are ridiculously high.

The world's leading companies make it their business, for better or worse, to prove themselves on New York stages; the Australian Ballet recently showed how excellent its dancers are. But there are many smaller companies, including local ones, that perform here regularly, and often the toe-shoed women are simply not up to expectations. But it's that omnipresent ideal—tyranny—of the pretty ballerina on pointe that provokes this backlash. It's a choice the choreographer makes, in a way reflecting the seductive gloss and promise of Ballet. 

One work presented by the Australian Ballet instigated this post: Wayne McGregor's Dyad 1929 (which I reviewed for Dance Magazine). The women changed from pointe shoes to soft slippers as the piece went on, except for one. This shift was not some major dramaturgical fulcrum: to me, it emphasized that traditional expectations need not be fulfilled in order for work to have artistic merit. And was a subtle statement on the future possibilities of dancing at times in soft slippers, which opens up so many options. Now that so many women are as athletic as the men, why not let them back down to earth once in awhile so they can show us?

Note: Here's a fascinating video on pointe shoes, featuring NYCB's Megan Fairchild. It's a reminder of the time and material resources consumed by the prevalence of the iconic shoes. They estimate that principal dancers use a pair a day, which must include breaking them in (these somewhat barbaric rituals include slamming the boxes with doors, and using files to increase friction), sewing ribbons and elastics, and getting them to conform to one's feet, or vice versa. Just the management of shoe inventory alone is a major task. 

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