Balanchine's Pointework

May 1997

As a professional dancer who has danced in several Balanchine ballets during her career, I approached Suki Shorer's book with great interest. Although I have been coached in some of my roles by such Balanchine experts as Patricia Neary and John Taras, the constraints of a crowded schedule do not generally allow for such detailed analysis as Suki Shorer attempts in her book. So I was fascinated by the opportunity to explore at my leisure the teachings of Mr B, delivered by someone who worked so closely with him.

The impetus behind the use of the pointe has altered over the course of the two hundred years in which it has been employed. When Anne Heinel padded her slippers with cotton wool in 1770 and danced 'on stilt-like tip-toe', it was in an effort to appear more ethereal, to enhance the other-worldliness which characterised the Romantic era. As embodied in the role of Giselle, the pointe work seemed to grow out of the ground, a precursor to taking flight. Later, in Classical ballet, the dancer on pointe symbolised balance and poise, satisfaction rather than yearning, as exemplified in Petipa's choreography for Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Rather than growing up from the floor, she seemed composed upon it, each step decisively placed like the jewels in the crown on her head.

In the twentieth century, there was a further development in the approach to pointe work, and in Suki Shorer's claim, it is largely attributable to the work of George Balanchine. Having read her book, I am inclined to agree with her. However much Ashton was simultaneously developing ballet in Britain, his use of the ballerina's ability to dance on pointe followed very much in the footsteps of Petipa.

In Balanchine's choreography, pointe work is integrated into the fabric of the dance itself. The seams between the dancer 'on pointe' and the preparation which precedes this are no longer visible. As Shorer says, 'His pointe work is not isolated or highlighted as if in quotation marks; it is, rather, a given for every women on stage, an integral part of her expressive being.' Following on from this, choreographers like William Forsythe have extended pointe work even further, exploiting the full potential of the power of the pointed foot which Balanchine had begun to uncover.

Shorer attempts to explain how this was achieved in a comprehensive study which starts with the pointe shoe itself and goes on to analyse the various techniques of getting onto and coming off the pointe. I wonder whether it needed to be quite so comprehensive: The book is obviously written for people with a fairly advanced knowledge of dance technique, and for that reason I feel that she spends rather too much time in reminding us that the thighs must remain turned out, the feet in a tight fifth position, and so on. Surely these are fundamental requirements of any classical ballet technique? They did not need quite so much emphasis in such a specialist book as this.

Despite her description of certain aspects as unique to Balanchine, many of the methods are consistent with my own training. It is interesting to ask how much of that training ( in the late seventies) may have already been influenced by Balanchine's theories. Perhaps his most famous theory involves the use of the heel, and Shorer addresses this in a chapter by itself. His advice not to put the heel down was of course in direct conflict with dance training throughout the rest of the world. Shorer describes the remark as 'creating an uproar'. She maintains that he simply meant that the weight of the body should remain over the metatarsals, and not sink back onto the heel. Balanchine was probably once again ahead of his time, as I have not come across many teachers who would disagree with him. She says he wanted the dancer to be 'like a cat, ready to pounce', an analogy I have employed myself from time to time.

One of the most distinctive techniques of a 'Balanchine' dancer is the 'roll-up' or 'press' releve, the smooth transition from demi plie to pointe which contributes so much to the seamless nature of his choreography. It is a movement adopted by Makarova, and one she used extensively in her own choreography for Gamzatti in La Bayadere. Shorer naturally spends some time on this, and although I admire the technique in itself, I would question some of the claims she makes as to its' uses. I have always found that rolling up towards the toe necessitates a shift of weight to the side, and is consequently a slower manouevre than the spring releve which is commonly used in England. Shorer claims the opposite. This may be an example of a problem which often arises when dancers talk about dance technique. We use a very subjective language which may paint a perfectly clear picture of our meaning as far as we are concerned, but singularly fails to communicate that meaning to the listener. Although we must be grateful to Shorer for recording her first hand knowledge of the advances which Balanchine instigated in pointe technique, I do wonder whether this was in fact the best medium in which to catalogue them. Were Noverre publishing his Lettres Sur La Danse today, I feel we would encourage him to do so on video or CD Rom. I hear from colleagues that Shorer is an excellent teacher, clear and precise, and skilled at translating her words into her pupil's actions. I feel her message would be better served by a method which employs visual rather than verbal imagery.

Shorer talks lovingly about the work of Balanchine and about the man himself. Perhaps this is in some ways the most interesting aspect of the book. Between the lines of the text we can read clearly the devotion and dedication which the dancers of his company felt for him. I wonder how much of his evolution of dance technique could have happened without that devotion. The ideas would still have been there, but without the willingness of his ballerinas to strive for the seemingly impossible, they would have remained mere visions in his head. Describing the lengths to which she would go to please Balanchine, Shorer admits that in order to develop the 'tapered' look that he admired in the foot, she would walk around at home in a pointe shoe which forced her to roll inwards, gradually developing a bunion. 'Over time', she tells us, 'I produced the tapered look he wanted, and that is so beautiful.' In today's climate, where young people in general, and dancers in particular are so much more aware of their rights, so much less malleable, it is interesting to speculate on how Balanchine's demands would be greeted. 'In the evening, I would think back over what had happened during the day and try to apply it not only to my dancing, but also to my life.' Suki Shorer was involved in a period of history the like of which I do not think we will see again.