During the latter half of the 19th century, Italian ballet shoemakers developed a new kind of slipper, with reinforced blocked toes, which would allow the ballerinas of the Italian school to show off new and daring jumps, balances and spins on the tips of their toes. The era of virtuosic technique in classical ballet had arrived.
It is in one way, an apotheosis of the technical ability of the classical trained ballerina to transcend the earthly plane and ascend into that of the aerial which began with a few, fleeting moments en pointe of the Romantic era ballerinas.
Inhabiting the Aerial Plane
For those pioneering ballerinas, ascent onto pointe was really just a logical progression of the Romantic desire to inhabit the aerial plane. As they rose towards the tips of their toes, the body needed to draw itself fully upwards, the shape sustained in the torso by épaulement and the feet found their place under the centre, not by clambering upwards but as a result of a natural extension of a lift in the whole body. Relever means ‘to rise’ and in dancing, implies that that the body is lifting –not pushing– away from the floor allowing for the legs to stretch down and eventually for the feet to point until the dancer appears to be suspended or is hovering effortlessly in the space.
As a young student in blocked shoes for the first time I remember very clearly the first exercises of the beginning pointe class, done at the barre of course. In addition to rising up and rolling down through the feet we learned how to ‘spring up’ into a 5th position with both legs so well crossed and underneath our centres that we imagined that we were doing a relevé onto a ‘postage stamp’. Then we re-learned relevés devant and relevés passés, as we had done them in slippers but now in pointeshoes. Again we were instructed to bring the supporting leg under the centre of the body as though relevé-ing onto the postage stamp.
The technical instructions were very clear from the start. When doing a relevé in pointeshoes we always employed a slight ‘spring’, (in Italian ‘sbalzo‘, in French ‘un petit saut’) bringing the toes under the centre of the body rather than rising up through the feet and moving out towards the toes. Gradually we were able to add pirouettes to the relevés passés, to posé and relevé in arabesque and to attempt fouettés ronds de jambe en tournant, that brilliant trick of the Italian school.
When I was dancing professionally in the USA it was considered unseemly to spring onto pointe and I quickly abandoned much of my original pointework schooling to fit in with dancers around me. However, as I moved away from the ‘spring’ technique, virtuosic steps such as fouettés ronds de jambe en tournant, which had always been for me relatively easy to do, took greater effort, and I had to work a lot harder to stay sur place.
Cecchetti Method Pointework: Using the ‘spring’ technique
When I first started teaching pointe, in the USA, I continued to employ the methods I had learned there as a professional dancer. However, back home in the UK I started to study the Cecchetti Method in depth, so as to be able to attempt the Final Diploma and to finish qualifications as a teacher of the Cecchetti Method, I had to re-learn and re-evaluate the Italian school ‘spring’ technique. Now I am teaching my pupils the same technique I was taught as a young student.
Vaganova quotes in her book ‘Basic Principles of Classical Ballet’:
“In so far as pointes are concerned, the Italian technique has such unquestionable advantages that I subscribe to it without reservations. Cecchetti taught the dancer to rise onto the pointes with a little spring, distinctly pushing off the floor. This manner develops a more elastic foot and teaches the concentration of balance of the body on one spot”.
Vaganova mentions also the disadvantages of the foot considered ‘beautiful in everyday life’, because it is weak. This is the foot that has “a high arch, with a well turned, slim ankle, correctly grouped toes”, in other words the foot that is considered absolutely necessary today for a classically trained dancer to even be considered for a job in a professional ballet company. It is interesting to note that Anna Pavlova, who was described by André Levinson as ‘having the soul of Russia in the instep of her foot’ had everlasting problems with finding shoes for her beautifully arched feet and toes of unequal length but owed much of her success in overcoming these obstacles, to Cecchetti’s classes and Method. When one studies the photos and films of Pavlova, who seems to be hovering in the air whilst balancing on the tips of her toes, she really is doing just that!
Use of the ‘spring’ technique in Pointework for all kinds of leg and foot shapes
In my role as a teacher to students who have not been chosen by audition but who attend classes mainly for recreational purposes, I see children with the greatest possible variety of leg and foot shapes. Without exception I find that if they learn to relever in slippers with the slight ‘spring’ and can hold this shape in their bodies correctly- maintaining their aplomb- whether they have a highly arched instep or barely one at all, they will eventually be able to do this en pointe.
Then there is the issue of descent, back into the fifth position. Again, the Italian school employs a slight ‘spring’ whereby both legs jump down simultaneously. As with allegro, this is identical in form to landing from en l’air in a jump and is suitable for much of the en pointe virtuosic choreography of an allegro variation. It is technically easier than the ‘rolling through the feet’ descent I was always required to show in Pas de Deux as a professional dancer. My students learn first the Italian school ‘spring down’ technique and do not learn to descend with the ‘rolling through the feet’ method until they have acquired great strength and control in their overall training.
Descending onto Pointe – achieving the illusion
And now to that singular and seemingly mystical notion of the descending onto pointe, in which I believe lies the secret of mastering pointework technique. This is where the dancer has achieved such a high and well-lifted position in the body that she appears to be descending onto her pointes. It is clearly evident in photos of great dancers such as as Anna Pavlova, who has been noted earlier, and particularly also in Galina Ulanova who clearly learned this from her teacher Marina Semyonova. The understanding of the line of aplomb and its importance in the moving of the body in space is the first and most important element of this mastery of pointe technique. If a dancer can achieve this effect it gives her the appearance of an unburdened lightness and she will have more actual physical control over her legs and feet.
From the first moment that students relevé into 5th position, onto that proverbial ‘postage stamp’, they are not just jumping up in the legs but engaging the whole body in a co-ordinated effort, activating the opposite forces of going up in the body and down through the legs. It is quite straight forward to keep the vertical line through the centre of gravity-the line of aplomb– whilst doing a relevé in the 5th position and to begin to feel suspended over the centre of a small point under the toes. In a similar way, repeat using échappé relevé and relevé passé.
The next step is to help a student become more secure dancing en pointe by practising the transference of weight. It is very important to understand that the body initiates every movement before the legs and feet. Whilst facing and holding onto the barre, execute a series of pas de bourrée piqueés using the shoulders and back in épaulement as the body moves alternately towards the right and left, but keep the head quite still, the eye focus gazing directly forwards. The épaulement generates the initial impulse to propel the body sideways and helps the dancer sustain herself en pointe as she transfers her weight. Feel how the ‘stepping down’ leg is lightly descending onto pointe.
Roger Tully says
‘Movement creates shape which is held in dynamic opposition by the use of épaulement’.
Without using opposition to create the shapes that will become the steps and enchaînements of classical ballet, there can be no real clarity of form and so the dancer has to resort to undue force to generate movement and try to hold their shapes in space. As a result, their dancing will appear artificial and strained.
Gradually, as this notion of ‘descending onto pointe’ becomes understood, a dancer can practise a posé or piqué into a retiré passé or arabesque, with the same feeling of being so well held in the body that they appear as though supported from above by a helium balloon. It is at this time that the more advanced technique of ‘rolling down through the shoes’ can also be mastered. When a student has become adept enough en pointe at the barre the same principles can then be applied in the centre.
Cecchetti Technique: Mastery of Co-Ordination
Finally I would like to mention how important it is in Cecchetti Method, to have total co-ordination of the legs and arms, body and head, and the part this plays in developing the purity of line and freedom of movement inherent in a well trained classical dancer. Cecchetti insisted on his dancers repeating a series of ports de bras everyday so as to refine the co-ordination he demanded of them in their upper body and remind them how to use the arms and torso in allegro by incorporating the most sophisticated of movements into adagio such as sustained pirouettes in open positions and in renversé en dedans.
This schooling, with its adherence to physical principles and an insistence on total co-ordination leads a dancer naturally to the development of technical virtuosity. Thus the slight ‘spring’ onto pointe now appears to be not so much of a gimmick, in order to execute those 32 fouettés, but rather is a logical component in a well thought out method of classical ballet training.