Pair de deux – Never ever without my pointe shoes!
By Simona Pinwinkler
The fairy tale of Cinderella once taught us that the right pair of shoes can change your life. While Cinderella found her dream prince with a pair of glass shoes, a ballerina needs the perfect fitted pointe shoe as her most important tool to work with. What the brush is for the painter, the stethoscope for the doctor and the guitar for the musician, is the pointe shoe for a ballerina. "Therefore it is all the more important to find the perfect pointe shoe for each dancer," says Séverine Ferrolier, who has been dancing as a First Soloist at Bayerisches Staatsballett since 2004. She took over the pointe shoe administration for our ensemble at the beginning of the current season in September 2018. She is responsible for ordering the women's pointe shoes and the men's flat shoes, as well as for stock management.
You learn to understand that the pointe shoes mean so much more to the dancers, when you listen to their stories and explanations. Marta Navarrete Villalba for example, who danced in Spain and London before joining the corps de ballet at Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2014, told us about an experience at an audition in Spain. Some girls manipulated a fellow dancer's shoes by loosening the sole from the shoes, filling it with crystals and gluing it together again. The applicant could no longer take part in the audition and was thus deprived of an important chance to succeed as a ballerina. "Since then I learned to take care of my shoes, especially during an audition," Marta sums up and jokes that we should not be surprised when ballerinas go to lunch or the washing room with their shoes clamped under the arms.
Pointe Shoe Fittings at Bayerisches Staatsballett
This spring Séverine organised two pointe shoe fittings for the company, which gives the dancers the opportunity to try on different models and to seek the advice of experienced representatives of the brands. About a quarter of the female dancers of our ensemble dance with pointe shoes of the US brand Gaynor Minden. The French Isis Cathala os the company’s representative, easily to be recognized by her oversized suitcase as she arrives on the 6th floor of the Nationaltheater. In the blink of an eye the floor was covered with countless new pointe shoes. During the fitting Isis advises every dancer individually. First, the dancers put on their current, already worn shoes and go on point. The consultants take a close look and analyse which improvements could be made to optimise the comfortability for the future pair. “The conversations with the dancers are particularly important”, Cathala explains, “because this is the best way to understand their needs and keep developing our products.”
The dancers have the possibility to choose from five different shapes, from "super soft" to "extra hard". "The choice of this category is very individual and depends on the physical condition of the feet of a ballerina and on the repertoire during the current season. Certain pieces and roles require a harder shoe than others and the choice should be based on this," explains Isis, who herself has danced for many years and now brings this knowledge into her work as a pointe shoe representative for the global market. With this role she visits different ballet academies around the world, which allows her to describe certain cultural trends with regard to shape choices: "While in Russia and Brazil dancers prefer to dance on hard soles, dancers from Europe and Asia are mainly turning to softer shoes. The culture of dance and the dancing styles in a certain country often determine the choice of shoes. Of course, this does not apply to everyone, but there is a tendency."
However, the choice in ordering a pointe shoe goes far from beyond the selection of different shape flexibilities. For each model there are different sizes in foot length, the width of the so-called "box", which encloses the front part of the foot, as well as in the height at the ankle and the vamp. In addition, special designs and material for the toe can be ordered to give the dancers extra support and a comfortable feeling in their shoes. Accessories such as elastic straps, satin bows and inserts for toe protection are also standard equipment of a ballerina.
Finding the right shoe
"It is not a given that such fittings are offered and that all dancers have the opportunity to choose their perfect shoe for themselves. That is a special privilege here in this company," explains Marta. Especially the young dancers appreciate these pointe shoe fittings, as many of them are still in the early phase of finding the right shoe. "It can take years to find the right brand and finally the right model," Marta says. It took her a long time and many shoes and brands before she discovered the right shoe for herself. "What suits one dancer doesn't work at all for another." The female dancers of the company mainly dance with Freed, Gaynor Minden, Bloch, Sansha and Krishko shoes. Each foot is different in its physical shape, each dancer works differently in their dance art. That's why it's good that there are so many different brands, Marta explains and shows her very individual pointe shoe with a certain kind of euphoria: "My name is written on the sole, the stamped triangle stands for my shoemaker and the combination of numbers reveals the model, the length and the width of the box. It's my shoe - it only exists once."
When the shoemaker retires ...
This special opportunity of personalization is appreciated by dancers using the British pointe shoe brand Freed –including some ballerinas of our ensemble. Each shoe is handmade and shows the logo of the shoemaker. On Freed's website you can even find the photos of the shoemakers, giving the ordering process a special personal touch. For more than seven years, Jeanette Kakareka, who was previously engaged in the USA and London before joining our ensemble in 2017, has been dancing with shoes from a single shoemaker. But him having retired now, puts her and other customers in a phase of reorientation. "It is not easy for us to change our shoemakers. Everyone of them works completely differently”, says Jeanette. Therefore, she is receiving detailed advice from Freed's representatives at the pointe shoe fitting. She tries on models from different shoemakers and relies completely on the representative’s expertise: "It will take a while, but I'm sure we'll find the right shoe".
In the case of Jeanette, the change had already been announced six months in advance. The dancers were informed by the brand about the retirement making it possible to order several pairs in stock. But there are also cases in which the shoemakers leave very suddenly, due to illness or termination. Our British dancer Sinéad Bunn told us, she went through a particularly long and intense search for the perfect pointe shoe. When her former shoemaker became ill, it was difficult for her to find an equivalent replacement. Sinéad then tested different brands and models and gained a certain expertise with pointe shoes. "I have become a real shoe expert here in the house - when my colleagues have problems with their shoes, they usually come to me and ask for advice.”
Hitting, sewing, baking
A few weeks later when the pointe shoes finally arrive, the individual preparations by the dancers themselves begin before the shoes are actually ready for use. Each ballerina has her own methods and preferences. Marta for example, explains that she pulls the nails out of the back of the shank and cuts off a piece of it to get a better grip in the shoes. She cross-stitches double straps on the sides to strengthen the hold. Her mother used to take care of her shoes when she was younger. When Marta went to London to dance at the Royal Ballet School, she had to learn how to prepare her shoes herself. She points to the opposite wall of the wardrobe and says: "Before the performances we used to hit the shoes against this wall, that makes the shoes more quiet on stage." Sinéad’s personal "secret recipe" is to bake the shoes before every single performance. She puts the pointe shoes into the hot oven and lets them heat up properly. After the performance, the shoes get dried on the heating to make them last longer. The treatment of the shoes with a certain pointe shoe glue, a mixture of alcohol and resin, also is part of the usual shoe care routine of the ballerinas, as Séverine explains to us.
A short but intimate relationship …
How long does a ballerina dance with a pair of pointe shoes? This is the big question. One hundred hours per pair can be read several times, but it's impossible to estimate. "If you want, you can dance through a pair of pointe shoes during the performance," Marta says, "but that would be a waste. They really should last a week." The lifespan of the shoes is therefore not long, the wear and tear correspondingly high. Among other things, Séverine is responsible for the calculation of the pointe and flat shoes for the ensemble, so she has to manage the budget. "It's not always that easy. Of course there have to be enough shoes in stock, but I also have to keep an eye on the costs. Sometimes I have to stop the dancers a little." Dancer Marta admits with a laugh: "If you ask a ballerina how many shoes she would like to have, every one of them would probably answer: thousands, please! There would be no limit!"
"There is no more intimate and fleeting relationship than between a dancer and her shoes," the journalist Scott Freeman writes in his report on worn pointe shoes (24.01.2019, Arts ATL). Intimate, because there is hardly a more personalized shoe in the world. And it's fleeting because there is probably no other footwear that shows such a high degree of wear and tear. When we confront individual ballerinas with this statement, there is no abjection. "Absolutely, I can fully agree with that", Marta says, "we depend on our shoes and have to rely on them to one hundred percent".
What looks so easy and floating on stage is actually hard work. Not only in the form of the daily ballet class, but also the selection as well as the preparation and care of the pointe shoes requires a lot of time and material, not to mention the aching feet. "You get used to the pain," Sinéad says, explaining that despite or rather because of this high level of commitment, it’s a special privilege to dance on point. This emotional, very personal component ultimately defines what makes the perfect ballet shoe so indispensable for every single dancer.