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A small miracle took place when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni first rose en pointe. She elevated a simple shoe into a tool for conveying sublime artistry. While it takes a ballerina long years and endless hours of training to be able to perform such miracles let us not forget that her shoes will have also followed a very laborious regime. The unsung heroes who manufacture them pour long hours of highly skilled work, preserving a long standing balletic tradition and a 150 year-old craft.

For any person as obsessed with watching ballet as we are, or for those who dance, dissecting this key component of classical dance gives a greater insight into the art itself. As we start a series of posts focused on dancer’s tools,  we look here into the anatomy of a pointe shoe and its manufacturing process.

Parts of a pointe shoe

Irrespective of brand, pointe shoes are typically composed of the same parts. We have illustrated this section with pictures of Capezio Pavlowas:

  • Most shoes have a stiff box – or block – made with layers of fabric, paper and glue (very much like papier-mâché), whose stiffness will vary depending on the shoe’s model, width and length.
  • As the box extends over the toes, it encases them and gives them a supporting platform upon which the dancer stands.
  • Halfway into the foot, the box’s upper layer of satin, leather and/or canvas forms the upper which is joined to the outer sole by a series of pleats.

  • The area covering the toes is known as the vamp. The edge of the shoe can be lined with a drawstring to help adjust the foot.
  • The inner shoe is lined with canvas.

Side view of a "traditional" pointe shoe

  • Underneath the shoe,  a small thin leather sole allows for flexibility. Most models have a full sole, but some have split soles or soles combining leather and fibre to increase shoe pliability and improve foot articulation.
  • Between the outer and the inner soles a hard spine made of leather or a more resilient synthetic material – the shank – forms the shoe’s core. A full shank runs the length of the sole. Ideally it should be hard yet supple and conform to the dancer’s arch.

Back view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Top view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Note that Gaynor Minden shoes are particularly distinctive. They neither have boxes made of a paper/fabric/glue combo, nor a separate leather shank. Instead they are built from a single box/shank combo made of long-lasting elastomeric (a synthetic material) to ensure the shoes do not soften too soon. With the shank and box forming one single piece there are no pleats underneath.

Manufacturing

Traditional pointe shoes follow a process referred to as turnshoe. They are put together inside out on top of a last (a foot-shaped mold made of wood or plastic). They are not separated into right or left although some ballerinas have custom made lasts to replicate the shape of their own feet. Parts of this process have been automated but most of the shaping work is still done by hand.

The Upper

The parts forming the upper (vamp, wings and lining) are cut from fixed patterns using hydraulic presses, with special orders hand-cut from individual patterns. Seamstresses join the upper with the backs and sew in the satin and cotton lining. A back strap is also sewn in and, if the model calls for it, a drawstring is added.

The upper is placed inside out over the last and the shoemaker assembles the block over the lining with several layers of fabric, paper and special glue, which need to be worked on for a long time. The shoemaker pulls the upper and handles it with various instruments molding it into a pointe shape (squared, tapered, etc).

The Soles

Soles (inner sole and outer sole) and shank are cut out of large pieces of leather using mechanical presses or by hand. They are shaven – to even out the surface – and buffed. They are placed inside the shoe and fastened with glue and nails.

Shaping & Stitching

The shoemaker works the shoe in the last, shaping it from the outside with a small hammer and getting rid of any bumps in the toe area. The final part of the process – pushing the handmade pleats into position – is one of the most critical, as it will determine the fitting and flexibility of the shoe. The pleats are stitched and the excess fabric is removed. The upper is also stitched to the sole and the shoe is turned right side out. Finally the shoe is placed on a rack (or a hot-air oven) to dry all the glue.

See a video of a pointe shoe being manufactured

For those of you interested in the specifics of manufacturing Gaynor Mindens, see this video featuring the company’s Head of Design, Eliza Gaynor Minden

If you are interested in pointe shoes or other ballet tools generally, look no further than our Tools of the Trade playlist in our YouTube channel.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Pointe Book by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger. Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 087127261X [link]
  2. Russian Pointe Shoe Fitting Guide [link]
  3. Gaynor Minden’s official website [link]
  4. The Pointe Shoe Information Exchange – All about brands and makes – [link]
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Things have changed a lot in the last century in terms of technological advances and ways to exchange information. This means people have changed as well, with new generations becoming harder to impress and more likely to spend time in front of the TV or computer where everything can be found at the click of a button,  their attention spans increasingly shorter. This also means that the arts have had to adapt to this new era, juggling the interests of established audiences with a desire to attract new ones.

Ballet in particular has been faced with various dilemmas. In addition to arts budgets which stifle creativity in favour of bankable productions, preconceptions about the art form have been passed on from one generation to the next, resulting in core audiences largely formed by the wealthy and/or the senior. However, ballet companies continue to seek new and younger ballet audiences, making increased use of social media channels. This week, for instance, the Royal Opera House announced the launch of a new iTunes channel where ballet and opera masterclasses and other educational videos can be downloaded into one’s iPod within seconds (and free of charge).

These new avenues will not necessarily change the mindsets of those who are used to associating ballet with snobbery and inaccesibility but at least they make it easier for all of us to try. And try we must. In this post we take a stab at tackling some of the biggest misconceptions about ballet. We challenge those of you who have never been to a performance to try it (and do tell us about it ). It is never too late and you might be – positively – surprised.

Myth #1

Ballet is all about old fashioned tales of Nutcrackers, Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes. It revolves around princes and fairies, tutus and men in tights.

First things first: Princesses in tutus are 19th century ballet symbols. While it’s true that ballet companies still go back to the bankability of old classics, especially in our credit crunched times, ballet did manage to evolve beyond that garment over the years. A revolution took place when Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes steamrolled their own artistic movement out of Russia, spreading their view of dance as art and as a way of life in the early 20th century, nurturing revolutionary minds that had a long-lasting impact on the art. If tutus are not your thing, don’t despair, there are plenty of alternatives.

Your Prescription: Go see a full length MacMillan ballet. Try a Balanchine Black and White (ie. pared down) ballet such as Agon or The Four Temperaments.

Watch the documentary “The Story of Ballets Russes” this Friday on BBC4.

Myth #2

All ballets are the same, if you don’t enjoy one then ballet is definitely not for you

As one of our Twitter buddies, Robbintheoffice, puts it: if you go see a movie and don’t enjoy it, you don’t stop going to the cinema altogether, right? But for some people, one ballet they don’t like will be enough to put them off for life. Before you decide that ballet is definitely not for you try at least a few different styles and schools. If you don’t like a 19th century classic or a Romantic ballet maybe you will like a MacMillan ballet. If you are not keen on narrative ballet perhaps abstract plotless works might win you over? Mix and match.

Your Prescription: A mixed bill containing at least one contemporary or new work to give you a flavor for which style may suit you best.

Edward Watson in Glen Tetley's Sphinx, part of a Mixed Bill. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #3

Ballet is too expensive

Ballet can be expensive but so can theatre and musicals. If you can afford tickets for U2 or Madonna, Hairspray or Legally Blonde The Musical, then ballet prices should not come as a shock. The key is to book as early as possible (first day of public booking) or as late as possible (day tickets and returns). Depending on the ballet, you should be able to find a midrange seat for less than £50. For as little as £20 you can grab a seat in the amphiteatre sides or – if you are not keen on heights – stalls circle benches with restricted views are generally good value for money. For the price of a cinema ticket you can bag a supervalue day standing place or perhaps even a ticket for the ballet at your local cinema screen.

Your Prescription: Experiment with different amphiteatre seats or stalls circle bench seats to see which suit you best. Buy very early or very late. Read this post.

Myth #4

Ballet is formal, snobbish, elitist & not for young people

Fair enough, classical ballet does draw formal, older crowds especially in the area around the Stalls and Grand circles. But this should not intimidate you, there will be representatives of every kind of demographics in the house, from Bermuda guys to Oscar de la Renta ladies. And if you attend a Wayne McGregor premiere at the Royal Opera House you could gather enough material for an anthropological study about diversity in ballet audiences, quite the opposite of your preconception.

Your Prescription: any work by Wayne McGregor, David Bintley’s Cyrano, or Wheeldon’s company Morphoses. Read this post about dress codes, etc. at Intermezzo blog.

Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor's stylish Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Myth #5

Ballet is boring, sickly sweet, definitely not cool

As we said before: different ballets for different people. Are there sickly sweet ballets? Yes. Boring ballets? Most definitely. But what I might find sickly or boring is completely different to what the person next to me will. If you want your ballets loaded with substance you might want to start with something dramatic like Manon or Mayerling, the anthitesis of sweet. Or if you want to explore something that looks sweet but which can still punch you in the gut you can try Bournonville’s La Sylphide. If you are looking for purely cool, then try modern ballets by edgy choreographers.

Your Prescription: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s E=mc2 (one of the coolest things we saw this year) Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark Company, the Ballet Boyz.

Gaylene Cummerfield, Tom Rogers & Matthew Lawrence in Bintley's E=mc2. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Myth #6

Ballet is not for men, it’s a girly thing

Actually most of the 20th century was dominated by superstar male dancers: Baryshnikov anyone (if you don’t know much about ballet you will at least have heard of him in Sex and The City)? Dancers like him were instrumental in inspiring future generations of male ballet dancers. Don’t believe us? Then follow the various male dancers and male ballet enthusiasts on Twitter, there are quite a few of them sharing their experiences from both sides of the curtain.

Your Prescription: Read this post written by a guy about going to the ballet for the first time. Go see a Carlos Acosta & Friends show or watch Acosta dancing Spartacus, the balletic equivalent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator (it’s available on DVD).

Male Power: Carlos Acosta as Des Grieux in MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Myth #7

One needs to understand ballet in depth in order to enjoy it

Another cool thing about ballet (by the way, have we mentioned that we think ballet is cool?) is that it can be understood in many ways, there are no rules, nothing prescribed about what you should be taking away from a performance. Of course preparation pays off, especially when it comes to narrative or semi-narrative ballets. Reading the story and knowing a bit of the background will help, though it is by no means mandatory. An eye for detail helps too but, most of all, you will need an open and contemplative mind.

Your Prescription: A bit of googling before a performance goes a long way. Try to read the reviews (but try not to be too influenced by them), see what people are saying about the ballet you are planning to see on different social media channels and forums or – shameless promotion – over here at The Ballet Bag.

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Kim Brandstrup. Copyright belongs to its owners. Source: GBCM

While at the main stage the Royal Ballet season kicks off in October with Mayerling, downstairs at the Linbury Studio the ROH2, Royal Opera House’s contemporary arm, makes a headstart next week with an exciting new collaboration between dancers Tamara Rojo, Thomas Whitehead, Steven McRae and choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Then, later in the season, Brandstrup goes back to the main stage for a repeat of his acclaimed one act ballet, Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story. Based on  one of the preliminary outlines for Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and influenced by socialist realist movie aesthetic, the ballet furthered his range as a leading narrative choreographer.

With Brandstrup’s film school background it was natural that a ballet called Rushes (the name refers to raw, unedited film scenes) should contain all forms of reference and reverence to cinema, with its non linear narrative and action that takes place behind beaded curtains, just like a grainy movie from the 30’s. Movie-like structures are something of a leitmotif in his works, and in the past he has spoken of his rejection of classical ballet’s literal or linear plot development as compared to “film cuts” (see “in his own words” below). However, Brandstrup’s forthcoming Goldberg project with Tamara Rojo seems an altogether different proposition, an experiment with  “other ways of moving”, using Bach’s Goldberg Variations and drawing subtleties and “things  that go unnoticed in big stages” to the intimacy of the Linbury Studio. More information on this project can be found in a recent interview Brandstrup gave to dance writer Jane Simpson now posted to Ballet.co.uk.

Kim Brandstrup in a Nutshell

Born in Arhus, Denmark in 1956, the son of a contemporary artist, Kim attended a progressive school which encouraged creativity. He initially studied film at the University of Copenhagen, but switched to modern dance studies at age 19.

He moved to London in 1980 to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance where Nina Fonaroff was his teacher.

Kim founded his own company, Arc, in 1985 (Arc is currently in the backburner but he plans to bring it back, not as a full time company but on a project by project basis).

In 1989 he won the Olivier award for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” with Orfeo, a piece he choreographed for the now extinct London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

The cinema never ceased to be an influence in his work, along with literature. Kim worked with Irek Mukhamedov on a commission of Othello (winner of the London Evening Standard Award for Most Outstanding Production) and created for his own company pieces such as Elegy which drew on characters from The Idiot and later Elegy’s enlarged version (Brothers) inspired by two other Dostoevskian tales.

He has choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, the Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies in the UK and abroad.  He has been working with the Royal Ballet since 2003, having created dances for principals such as Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Zenaida Yanowsky, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae, Laura Morera, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Kim also works regularly with opera directors. One of his best known collaborations in this field was with director Phyllida Lloyd for Debussy’s one act opera “The Fall of the House of Usher”, where he choreographed the opening sequence featuring four dancing doubles of the opera characters, as performed by Steven McRae, Gary Avis, Leanne Benjamin and Johannes Stepanek. (This 2006 production is available on DVD).

He says his creations are triggered by the dancers he works with even if the music, theme or narrative have been chosen well in advance. For him, being in the studio with a particular dancer transforms a piece from concept to reality, tailoring the movement to their particular strengths and characteristics.

For Rushes he chose a rare, unpublished Prokofiev movie score (composed for a shelved film adaptation of The Queen of Spades) which he tracked from a tiny footnote in an article mentioning the score’s existence, liasing with a Princeton scholar and finally finding a copy in the Prokofiev archives at Goldsmiths College. What attracted Brandstrup was the structural freedom it gave him, the music was meant to be played underneath a dialogue so it was done in short, concise numbers.

In his own words:

Everyone says I have done narrative ballets but I have never tried to use narrative in a traditional way

My preparation is not steps, not even a story. I listen and listen until the music has become second nature, it has to be in the bloodstream.

The dancers are the second ‘given’ when you work with an established, full-time company. First there is the music, the theme, the place in the programme, which is stipulated when you are first asked, then comes – and this is the most important – the dancers. If they don’t inspire you, then you can’t do it, no matter how prestigious or exciting the project might be.

In a ballet you have a location and people acting in it in real time – 45 minutes in a castle, 45 minutes in a forest, 45 minutes at a wedding.” Whereas in film one event cuts to another and time is not literal.

When I studied film, everything that I loved about it was not verbal, it was the silent films. And when you look at a director like Hitchcock you’ll find that 60 or 70 per cent is purely visual and it’s through the images that the story is told.

She’s a remarkable artist she has such focus and power on stage which gives her a real dramatic hold over an audience. (on Tamara Rojo)

Extract of Reviews and Selected Praise:

Of his Two Footnotes to Ashton, Linbury Studio

Brandstrup’s bucolic Two Footnotes to Ashton is particularly captivating, a frolicsome and erotic footnote to La Fille mal gardée, with Johan Kobborg as a bare-chested, very surprised yokel on whom Alina Cojocaru insistently pounces like a tiny little cat on heat. Everything about this duet is seductive – the recording of Cecilia Bartoli at her most irresistibly honeyed in Gluck’s “Di questa centra in seno”; the way Cojocaru sexily nudges dopey Kobborg with her head and then unleashes lethal vertical arabesques; and the final sweetness of his succumbing, holding her hovering body over his in a delicious anticipation. A total charmer, truly Ashtonian, and surely likely to reappear for the pair on gala occasions. Ismene Brown at the Telegraph [link]

It was Kim Brandstrup who lived up to the evening’s title. His Footnotes was set to ravishing arias (Gluck, Handel), ravishingly sung by Bartoli and Kozena, ravishingly realised (Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg pouring out feeling as a whirlwind of turns and poses; Zenaida Yanowsky grieving wonderfully), and ravishingly made. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

Of Pulcinella, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Cleverly, Brandstrup depicts Pulcinella as a puppet who has somehow slipped his strings, a giddy, quivering creature who alternates between blithe enthusiasm and doleful despair, and who can only just hold on to his spiky, streetwise girlfriend Pimpinella (Ambra Vallo). Some of his best writing is for these comically ill-assorted lovers, especially their wrangling duets in which tiny Vallo seems to batten on to [Robert] Parker’s body, her railing fists and flick-knifing limbs wheeling vociferously around him. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Rushes

Acosta is caught in furious, impassioned dialogue with Morera (both artists grandly expressive) while there are appearances by Cojocaru as a compassionate “other” woman. Brandstrup’s writing is fluent, dark in tone for the Acosta/Morera partnership, the couple repeating with each new “rush” aspects of emotional turmoil that we have seen before. Cojocaru seems at first an observer (like the corps de ballet who inhabit the penumbra at the back of the stage). But Brandstrup has shown himself in past works to be an emotional optimist, and the final “rush” is an ecstatic duet for Cojocaru and Acosta which suggests an assertion of possible happiness. Here is a fascinating (and visually very stylish) ballet that will repay further viewings. I hope to return to it, and the rest of this triple bill, after a later performance. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

In keeping with the theme of Brandstrup’s ballet, all that existed of the music was a couple of dozen fragments, which Michael Berkeley has worked up into an immediately appealing and very danceable whole. Brandstrup picks his collaborators with an unerring eye and ear, and his ballets have a sense of completeness which is quite rare. Jane Simpson review for Dance Now (Vol. 17 No. 2 Summer 2008)

Where to see Kim Brandstrup’s Work:

  • Goldberg – The Brandstrup-Rojo Project – 21 to 26 September at the Linbury Studio
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010 – ROH main stage
  • MK Ballerina – 20 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre
  • MK Danseur Noble – 21 May to 5 June – The Royal Danish Theatre

Videos

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Brandstrup’s Official Website [link]
  2. Biography from Birmingham Royal Ballet website [link]
  3. Biography from GBCM website [link]
  4. New Rojo/Brandstrup work feature by Amanda Holloway. ROH About the House magazine – April 2009
  5. Kim Brandstrup feature by Allen Robertson. ROH About the House magazine – Sept 2007
  6. Performance Notes and Programme for Rushes (2008) including article “Kim Brandstrup” by Judith Mackrell
  7. Kim Brandstrup: Arcing back from the abyss by Nadine Meisner for The Independent [link]
  8. Kim Brandstrup’s Brothers reviewed by Ismene Brown for The Telegraph [link]
  9. Kim Brandstrup’s work listings at Loesje Sanders’ Website [link]
  10. Theorising Brandstrup at Work, a conversation with Susan Melrose and Steffi Sachsenmaier [link]
  11. Claude Debussy – The Fall of the House of Usher · Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune · Jeux (Bregenzer Festspiele 2006) DVD [link]

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