The enduring appeal of pointe shoes
Pointe shoes have been around for nearly 200 years. Why do we love them? Denise Richardson asked three modern-day choreographers what they think about this quintessential ballet footwear.
Natalie Weir, in her long career, has choreographed extensively for both ballet and contemporary dance companies, most
notably as Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company from 2008 to 2018. When asked how she felt about pointe shoes, Weir admitted to a long love affair.
“In terms of a choreographic tool I find them unlimited in what you can explore. Apart from Dancenorth and Expressions (EDC), my initial (choreographic) work was with QB and the Australian Ballet. And it took a while to get used to what you could explore. The movement you can create on pointe is very different to what you can create off pointe. It takes the aesthetic to a more classical place.”
How different is it to choreograph for pointe?
“The big difference is in the way you ground your work. With EDC I always grounded the movement into the floor. It was less about line and making shapes than moving through shapes, in and out of the floor. Not having pointe shoes, but rather bare feet or socks, gives you that connection with the floor and creates a heaviness in that aesthetic. In a ballet company where the men are not on pointe, I still work in a more grounded way using the classical technique. But with the women, for me it is the beauty of the form. When a person is doing classically based work off pointe you get that broken toe line, but on pointe there’s that endless extension into the ground. It’s elegant and beautiful to look at. And the dancers often prefer to be on pointe. Exploring off-balance partnering, contorting the shapes, or sometimes concentrating on the sense of rhythm that you can create with bourrées into the floor, I find quite inspiring. The more I play with the form, the more I want to.”
Why has the pointe aesthetic lasted?
Choreographically, the possibilities are almost endless. The pointe shoe immediately lightens the dancer, they become more uplifted and ethereal in some ways. However, the shoe can also be used almost as a dagger. So, the form offers such a different alternative, especially if you’re working between the two genres and wanting to keep each very distinctive. But in saying that I love working into the floor and when I’m working with contemporary dancers, I never want for a pointe shoe, ever!
Winner of the inaugural 2013 Tanja Liedtke Fellowship, Simons is a director, choreographer and performer working across
contemporary dance, theatre, ballet, opera and musicals. He is currently a sessional lecturer in musical theatre at Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University, and artistic director of Altitude Theatre.
What is your view of the pointe shoe?
“For me ballet is about illusion and magic. The ability for women in pointe shoes to extend the line of the leg from the knee right down to the toe, creating the illusion of floating, is an important part of what we all love about ballet.”
How different is it choreographing for pointe?
“Choreographing for pointe is difficult for a male dancer with limited experience on pointe. I can see the visual, but I can’t be inside the experience and sensation of the feet and the legs. I still demonstrate a lot of my choreography, but I’m far more likely to demonstrate in flat, or even throw on a pair of heels to demonstrate than I am to put on a pair of pointe shoes. Partnering many dancers on pointe and understanding the difference in weight placement has helped me as a choreographer and director in musical theatre. Because while there is little pointe work in musicals, women are mostly in heels, and this is not dissimilar to being on pointe.”
Should the triple threat include pointe?
“I think it’s an advantage. Musical theatre is interesting because people come at it from a variety of performance backgrounds, but I do think that those dancers with solid pointe training have legs and ankles much more prepared for a day spent in heels than a singer who hasn’t danced before. Therefore, I encourage those who have experience on pointe not to lose it.”
Why has the pointe form lasted?
“It is still such a symbol of elite training and technique. Physically, we know it’s certainly not what the body is designed to do. But through neo-classical and now more contemporary ballets, as the choreography has changed the pointe shoe has been able to find its purpose. I always say to my students … audiences love the athleticism, the fitness and elegance of someone moving their body in a way they can’t, and the pointe shoe is a major part of this. It is a fascination for non-dancers!”
Lucy Guerin AO, is a multi-award-winning contemporary dance choreographer, and Artistic Director and CEO of Lucy Guerin Inc. She choreographed her first work on pointe, pointeNONpointe, for the Queensland Ballet’s 2019 “Bespoke” program.
“I didn’t have to use pointe, but I thought it was a great opportunity to look at it from a different perspective. As a young dancer I had done some pointe work, so I remembered the feel, but I never got the joy out of it that some ballet dancers do. They’re so interesting, in that they’re such rigid confining instruments on the one hand but create this sensation of lightness and ephemerality on stage.
How different is it choregraphing for pointe?
“I don’t see a difference. I was in interested in choregraphing on the company the way I choreographed for contemporary dancers, based on tasks I gave the dancers. Of course, the results of those tasks were very different, because the training history in their bodies was different. It was very exciting to see the way I normally work being transformed by these differently trained bodies. I wanted to explore a different kind of quality with the pointe shoe; the weight of them, the sound of them on the floor and the kind of shape they can give the leg – one long kind of stick almost. I wanted to challenge the way the shoes were used, so some of the men wore them, some of the women, and some in bare feet. And there was a lot of floor work creating rhythms. It was incredible to work with those dancers who had mastered that technique so completely. It was an experimental work, and I was thrilled with the outcome.
Why has the pointe aesthetic survived?
Well you have to ask why those ballets survive – they’re classics, they’re part of history, and they require pointe shoes. But I have to say, those ballets are so extremely gendered in what the men and women do. The pointe shoe’s also quite phallic, so now that gender is much more fluid it could be explored more. And it needn’t be like Les Ballets Trockadero. It could be beautiful to see a man do something on pointe in a different way. There’s so much that hasn’t been done. Pointe work is painful, dancers’ feet bleed, and we all accept it, but I guess there’s part of me that says, ‘Is this really necessary?’
This is an extract from an article first published in the Sep/Oct/Nov 2020 issue of Dance Australia. Did you miss it? Subscribe here and make sure you never miss an issue!