As part of my dance teacher training I had to write an essay, the subject was open to me and I pondered hard upon what I would enjoy writing about. I eventually decided upon the subject of men en pointe after seeing the brilliant Trocks perform - this is what followed... Hope you find it as interesting as me!
I've often wondered, is there a place in 'serious' repertoire for men en pointe?
In the current era pointe work is seen as the virtuosic skill of the female dancer with the
men trading on big leaps and intricate beats, as well as speed and accuracy during turns. There are companies of men who dance en pointe, however they are seen as unusual and generally have comedic undertones even if the quality and technique demonstrated are at as high a level as their female counterparts, although men have danced on the tips of their toes in a non ballet capacity for many years. While it is clearly a huge feat for a man to dance en pointe, and it is possible to be performed with graceful and light technique of the female dancer, it leaves the question of:
Is there a place in the repertoire of major companies to stage ballets with roles for men en pointe as a serious characters or would they be reserved for the generally comedic roles of the Step Sisters in ‘Cinderella’ or Bottom in ‘The Dream’? How would companies and audiences react to their principal man dancing en pointe as a serious character or would it be seen as a novelty act such as the 'Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo'?
To answer these questions and come to a clear conclusion it was necessary to gain information from a number of sources. These included the attendance of live performances and watching videos of men dancing en pointe. Seeking personal opinions of male and female dancers, members of the public and choreographers. By researching written works, such as culture magazines, theory books and other media, approaching companies and schools and questioning their policy for men dancing en pointe, and by investigating the subject on the internet.
The iconic image of a ballerina is a slender, ethereal girl balancing on the very tips of her toes. Pointe work is very simply the art of balancing, turning and performing other movements whilst the foot is completely extended. The origin of the pointe shoe itself is somewhat unclear but it is believed that the first dancer to dance en pointe was Taglioni circa 1832:
'The feat of the feet was possible with the help of special shoes, know today as pointe shoes. And the first ballerina who pulled it off was Marie Taglioni – daughter of a famous choreographer at the Paris Opera.' (Speck, S & Cisneros, E. (2003) Ballet for Dummies, Wiley Publishing inc.)
The shoes have developed from a simple satin shoe to a highly engineered piece of
footwear that has many stages during creation. The foot is supported within the box of the shoe with the vamp supporting the toes and lower part of the foot. The dancer balances on the platform when en pointe.
To dance en pointe requires strength and flexibility in the foot and ankle as well as a well
developed stability in the core. Without the appropriate previous training in strengthening exercises at an appropriate age, a female or male dancer is at risk of damaging the bones and muscles in the feet and ankle. There is danger of putting pressure on the lower back due to the change in posture that the dancer may lack the strength to correct. The foot is in a similar position as when wearing a high heeled shoe when dancing en pointe.
‘If dancers maintain a neutral posture, they are not putting the body under so much strain and are less likely to sustain an injury," says the English National Ballet's
chartered physiotherapist, Jackie Pelly. "Everything should be in alignment, from the feet to the head. You do not want to lean back or forward, or favour one side.’ (Lantin, B. (2005) The pointe of good posture, The Telegraph.)
A dancer will take precautions to ensure that her body is in correct alignment and fully
primed for the physical effort by taking daily class in ballet technique and pilates, and makes sure that her feet are particularly prepared. In general boys are not taught to
prepare for pointe. Their training has more emphasis on strengthening legs, preparing for grand allegro and spins.
Chase Johnsey from the Ballet Trockadero De Monte Carlo told the writer of this essay that 'men don't grow up with the rigorous pointe training,' adding 'our shoulders and upper bodies are much heavier, ..., this has to be taken in to account to balance and be stable on pointe.' (Johnsey, 2015, interview with C May, appendix D, A.3)
There are lots of examples of men dancing either en pointe or on the end of their feet. These include works which are choreographed with serious intent but are perceived by their audiences as comic, companies who have men dancing as Ballerinas, companies
who have 'character' parts danced by men en pointe such as The Australian Ballet - The Dream, or the sisters in Cinderella, pieces created with the shoe used as a percussive tool, and folk dancers.
These types of work are often small niches in a market. The Bang Group commonly have male dancers wearing and dancing in pointe shoes as a male character rather than a man impersonating a female dancer. The piece ‘Hind Legs’ uses the shoe as a percussive instrument instead of in the classical manner of dancing on the end of the shoe while trying to keep the sound of the shoe hitting the stage as muted as possible, rather using the noise of the hard box banging against the stage to create an additional element to their performance. When David Parker from the Bang Group was asked by the writer of this essay why he wished to choreograph a pointe piece for a man, 'Hind Legs', he stated that he had “a background in percussive dance and wanted to explore the percussive potential of pointe shoes with their hard boxes.” (Parker, 2012, interview with C May, see appendix B, A.1). This explains why he uses the shoe as an instrument and does not use the light and precise movements a ballerina would demonstrate. Within the piece the dancer is dressed in men's attire and never attempts to feminise his movement.
Classical performance involves the dancer en pointe making the least noise possible to create the illusion of lightness and a sensation of floating. This choreography is designed to be serious in intention but audience members tend to find humour in it due to the unexpected sight of a man en pointe. This is a performance type that isn't recognised as 'normal' by the majority of audiences.
The Ballet Trockerdero de Monte Carlo is a company who use the novelty/comedy factor of men dancing en pointe to great effect. The male dancers are totally in character as Ballerinas. Hair, make up, costume and shoes are all designed to give the impression of the male dancer being a female which adds to the overall comedic effect the company aims for. The male dancers' skill and ability en pointe is often equal to the female in this genre.
The Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who have performed for 40 years continuously, are a company who perform in this style. Audience members are aware before the performance of the gender of the dancers and expect to see pointe work demonstrated with the grace, style and light footed technique of a well trained female dancer. During performance much of the repertoire is serious in execution and technically correct, however the performers add very subtle moments of humour - discreet touches such as enacting the part of a sly, jealous rival. There are also parts of the performance where the dancer is very clearly endeavouring to make the audience laugh whilst retaining pure technique including Pavlova's Dying Swan solo where the dancer loses feathers from the skirt of the costume during every step and tries to retrieve and replace them. The company is in high demand as proven by the number of performances during the year period of 2012 as shown on their website) - 99 show dates in 45 cites in 13
countries, and 2013 schedule of 65 performances in 8 countries.
Men have danced on the ends of their feet for many years in the Georgian form of dance called Svanuri, representative of a mountain goat. Although this is a dance performed on the ends of the feet and toes, often using the knuckles. It is performed with much vigour and is very different to classical pointe work. There are marked differences in the footwear of these very different styles of dancing on the very extremities. Pointe shoes are complex in their creation. There are many stages involved in the process and the shoes are very solid. "Each and every one is painstakingly hand crafted by a highly skilled maker." (Freed, 2013, Promotional leaflet) The box is a close fit to the foot and the back is strong and rigid, ready to be broken in by the dancer. In contrast the Georgian boots are simplistic, smooth soles without heels, developed over centuries to suit a mountainous life style.
In an interview (appendix c) with the writer of this essay, David McAllistair, the Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, discussed his views on dancing en pointe the satirical role of an Ugly Step Sister in the serious production of Cinderella. McAllistair found the experience of learning to dance on pointe both positive and negative, and felt that he was supported by the female company members. He came to realise that the technique differs between working on the demi-pointe and in pointe shoes, namely that the balance is affected as the centre of gravity is higher, and that moving the foot through from full pointe to flat is much greater than from demi-pointe. On the whole McAllister felt that the experience was positive and would have repeated it if he had put pointe shoes on before he was in his 30s.
When the writer presented members of the public from both dance and non dance backgrounds with a picture of Tzu-Chao Chou and Reiko Hombo en pointe, (illustration in appendix A) and asked them how they felt about it, she discovered that most were impressed and would be intrigued to observe a duet of a male and female danced en pointe. This group described it as interesting, aesthetically pleasing and attractive. The actual act of being en pointe seemed to be less important to people than the poise and
positioning of the dancers who they described as elegant and strong. This group of people would be possible candidates to be an audience for a performance of this type, however, they tended to be from a dance back ground, either as a dance teacher, a current dance student as a child or adult, or a parent or child of someone with a strong dance background.
'I have to say that the way he makes being on pointe look natural and masculine is quite refreshing. Ultimately, just because you dance on pointe doesn't mean
that action defines anything about your personality.' (Interview with Chase Johnsey appendix D, A.1)
The other group were either indifferent or actively disliked the concept. The people who actively disliked it described the image as ‘weird, gross, disgusting and abnormal’. Some people had assumed that men already wore pointe shoes, while one person stated that the man looked too feminine. When shown the image again at the end of the questionnaire the opinion of this group had not changed.
McAllister from the Australian Ballet stated that "I did get lots of positive comments from audience members. I think they were impressed at our ability on pointe". However this was a satirical role within a popular ballet.
To conclude, pointe work has many facets in the world of dance, performed classically by both men and women, performed in satirical roles by men, in roles that use the shoe as an instrument, in folk dance contexts, and for strengthening purposes in the classroom. However, none of these examples would be viable in a major company due to being niches in the market. The writer believes that although pointe work demonstrated by men has an audience, it would not have a position in a competitive market where companies need to appeal to the largest audience group. Angela Ma states that "In general ballet companies are not profitable. They operate at a loss and only recoup their costs with the help of appreciative donors." (Ma, 10.11. 2014, Ballet Companies: Do they make sense? Harvard Economics Review).
There will always be scope in a niche market for pointe work to be performed by men in satire, or as an exploratory piece of contemporary dance. However at the current time the majority of the public from this research would not chose to watch a serious ballet with men en pointe. This in turn will sway companies to maintain the current balance of women en pointe and men on demi pointe regardless of the fact that male dancers would not be averse to learning to dance en pointe.
The views of the public (from this limited research) appear to be divided between those who would like to see men in repertoire en pointe in a serious context, and those who feel that there is no place for men to perform such a role. The majority of audiences tend to hold a more traditional view of the type of ballet performance they wish to attend. At this point in time classical dance has the dominance against avant garde developments within the dance world.
The dancers and choreographers are keen to push boundaries to promote and enhance their art, and to appeal to a wider and often younger audience. Widening the audience base would in turn address the issues involved with financing new untested productions with innovative ideas and breaking stereotypes of pointe work being exclusive to female dancers. The writer believes that although currently there is not a place in ‘serious’ repertoire for men en pointe there is scope to change public opinions, for example when Nijinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ was first performed in 1913 it caused outrage, however over time it has gained acceptance across the world, therefore in the future men dancing en pointe may be accepted by the public at large.