Ballet: a feted feat of the feet


My column from April 2, 2015

Ballerinas move across the stage like elegant fairies dwelling in a forest of the Otherworld.

Many the young child dreams of being on that stage. In December, I attended a matinee performance of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. It was ideal timing for those whose bedtimes arrive before 9 p.m. As I looked around the sold-out 2586-seat theatre during intermission, I smiled: more than half of those in attendance were pre-teens, each in her or his personal dream.

For many, it was a first introduction to live ballet. Chloe, a six-year-old beside me, smiled throughout the entire first act, her legs not quite reaching the ground, wiggling back and forth. As the curtain closed on Act One, she stood and twirled.

I see the same reaction when children see ballerinas I’m working with in public around Kingston. Frankly, I often see adults in awe of dancers.

One of my photo sessions in January involved three dancers—Kara Gooding, Meggi Graham and Natalie Palma— visiting a Grade 3/4 class at St. John XXIII Catholic School. The dancers moved slowly around the classroom while children worked, first in reading time, and then language arts. At the end of lessons, the ballerinas answered questions during a talkback. The children grilled them. They were fascinated to learn that the dancers train longer and harder than many professional athletes.

Dance enthralls us. During one of my recent Tett open studios, a gentleman asked me about the history of the tutu.

Public misconceptions regarding dance are rampant. Something I’ve heard consistently from the uninformed and culturally inept is the notion that ballet is not healthy for dancers, that they bend and twist in ways that aren’t good for them, that damage their bodies.

That may happen—especially for dancers who work en pointe too early—with inept teachers in schools that push children to do things that are developmentally inappropriate with regard to their physiology, but it won’t happen in ballet training with professional teachers who themselves understand a child’s physical development and its relationship to dance.

As for the tutu’s history: ballet has been around since the 1500s, the tutu, not so long. Today, the tutu is synonymous with classical ballet.

It is believed that Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) wore the first tutu on stage in La Sylphide in 1832. Others point to Virginia Zucci in the 1880s, because her dress bore a stronger resemblance to the modern tutu.

As the technical skills of ballet intensified, and as the footwork became more intricate and required increased training and skills, it became natural to allow the public to see what the body was doing.

The tutu developed so the audience could witness the fine art of the dancer. Most early tutus were white. Today, tutus come in a wide range of colors and styles. Nothing beats the elaborate costumes worn in George Balanchine’s Jewels, where the ballerinas appear as emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The tutus are heavy and elaborate, and the sparkles can be seen from the farthest corner of the theatre. Likewise, there is little on stage more extreme than the difference between Odette and Odile, the White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake.

The tutu, by its very nature, appears ethereal, surreal even. In addition to highlighting the legwork of the ballerina, the tutu also allows the dancer to appear as if she is floating through the air on a glistening cloud.

The tutu can range from the longer, flowing Degas-style to the classical pancake or Balanchine’s powder puff look.

Until the early 1700s, dancers wore elegant, floor-length dresses. But in 1730, Marie Camargo raised the hem of her dress enough for audiences to see her feet and ankles, to demonstrate a bit of legwork. Over the decades, the ballerina’s dress continued upward until it became what we now know as the tutu.

Former ballerina, Jennifer Homans, traced the history of ballet in her book Apollo’s Angels. Ballet arose in the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. In the days of Louis XIV, men performed the intricate footwork that we now associate with women in the ballerina role.

The French Revolution in the late 18th century changed that. As the populace rebelled, the refined movements of men in dance became symbolic of the aristocracy. Homans explains that by the mid-1830s, it had become a disgrace for a man to dance on stage.

As women took over the techniques requiring extreme leg extensions and high jumps, anything covering their legs hampered their technique.

“Female dancers take the ideals that existed in the aristocratic art form and turned them into a feminine and spiritual ideal of which they are masters,” notes Homans. “Then you get this image of the ballerina on toe, in these more Romantic Era ballets of sylphs and unrequited love and the romantic themes that carried ballet into the 19th century.”

According to Homans, the tutu has a storied past.

“With a name probably derived from the French children’s word ‘tu-tu’—meaning ‘bottom’—the costume is a product of evolution that made its debut in 1832, an instant classic, so to speak, that’s been swathed in magic ever since.”

By the 1940s, the ballet skirt had evolved to new levels of intricacy; some included wire hoops, nylon and rayon.

The most famous tutu designer/maker was probably Barbara Karinska (1886–1983), born in Russia, but who later made New York her home. She worked on more than 75 Balanchine productions and originated the powder puff tutu, which is not as flat as the pancake tutus favored by Russian dancers. Of the costumes she created, 9000 are still housed in Lincoln Center’s wardrobe department below the home of New York City Ballet.

To help tutus remain stiff when not worn, they are hung upside down. Some are hand-washed after each performance, while others are dry-cleaned after three or four performances.

As for en pointe work, its history started as entertainment. Travelling troupes would thrill audiences by walking on their toes. Dancers displayed strength and skill by dancing on their toes. It made them appear taller and even more graceful. Marie Taglioni of the 19th century Romantic Ballet Era is credited as the first dancer known to dance in a ballet en pointe. She changed the face of ballet, turning en pointe work into a form of artistic expression requiring skill, strength and stamina.

Each pointe shoe is painstakingly fitted to a dancer’s feet, so she can dance on her toes without injury. You cannot simply walk into a generic shoe shop and buy pointe shoes. Here in Kingston, a ballet master fitter travels from Ottawa a few times a year to provide the fitting for dancers serious about their art. Failure to be properly fitted can end an aspiring ballerina’s hopes for a career in professional dance. This needless tragedy happens far too often and is easily preventable with the competent knowledge of a skilled shoe fitter combined with a dance teacher knowing when the ballerina is ready to move to en pointe work.

Melissa Mahady Wilton, the City of Kingston dance engagement coordinator and a teacher at the Kingston School of Dance, who regularly assesses dancers’ readiness, fears that many dancers are allowed to move to en pointe far too early, years before her body and skill level should. This is where the misconception about ballet injuries arises.

When Mahady Wilton’s own students are assessed as ready for en pointe, she recognizes it as a great achievement, an acknowledgement of a dancer’s hard work preparing for the physical and technical demands of this advanced technique. Sometimes it takes several years for a dancer to reach this stage. Some never work en pointe.

To witness dance and ballet at the highest level, keep your eyes on the calendar at the Grand Theatre and the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning. Watch for the upcoming Kingston School of Dance annual performance at the Grand Theatre in June. You can even see ballet classes in action at KSD through the windows at the Tett. Often, when dance companies visit Kingston, free master classes are provided at the Grand Theatre.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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