It’s evening on January 26th, 2017, six days after Donald Trump has been elected president and inside the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Square all eyes are on New York City Ballet principal ballerina, Tiler Peck, who is wearing hot pants and a leotard designed by Opening Ceremony and sneakers, as she is flying through a series of ballet steps and hip flicks.
The ballet is a premier of Justin Peck’s ‘The Times Are Racing’; a ballet made during the campaign trail about youth sentiment to tracks from Dan Deacon’s electronic album America, and Peck’s steps give cadence to the already pertinent anthem. There is classical lexicon everywhere: grand jete, arabesque and pirouette but performed with teen-like insouciance at high-speed, the twenty dancers resemble club kids rather than the image of conventional ballet dancers.
This is no fairytale. There is no sylph like unavailability here. Rather, when Peck partners former principal dancer Amar Ramansar, theirs is an exchange of mutual wanting. And when the corps de ballet swarm on stage, they do so as individuals dressed in sloppy tracksuits and T’s printed with ‘Unite,’ ‘React,’ ‘Act, ‘Protest,’ and ‘Fight,’ and not as the mannequins romantic ballet sometimes require them to be. Seldomly is ballet so political and in a rare departure from politesse, the audience roared in response as the red velvet curtain dropped. Sasha Weiss writing later for the New York Times called it ‘a ballet that speaks to our everyday lives.’
Ballet is an art form enmeshed with its history: steps drawn up in the court of Louis XIV remain today; blockbuster ballets like ‘The Nutcracker,’ ‘Swan Lake,’ and ‘Giselle’ were choreographed a century ago and then there are the gendered roles of prince and princess that habitually play out with men lifting and women being lifted en pointe. Peck who is thirty years old, a soloist with the company and its resident choreographer drew on these traditions but did not rely on them. In a first for what is affectionately called ‘City Ballet’ he created steps that could interchange between men and women and they did.
‘A major part of #TheTimesAreRacing has been an exploration of gender neutrality – to see how far we can push equality amongst the sexes through the lens of ballet,’ Peck wrote on Instagram in anticipation of the ballet’s new casting later that year. He mentioned Ashley Isaacs’ execution of the role created for Robbie Fairchild and the proposed selection of two men in the romantic pas de deux created for Tiler Peck and Ramansar. ‘It’s been very special to monitor this new pulse of the duet. To witness how the dynamics and counterbalance of Daniel Applebaum and Taylor Stanley can shift the impact and meaning of the choreography,’ he continued. Roles that chasse between the sexes are big news in ballet but LGBTQ love is alas groundbreaking. The vicissitudes of social media went wild.
Needless to say, the runners underscored the intent. Should Peck have choreographed women in pointe shoes and men in slippers as is orthodox in the company’s tremendous repertoire, ‘The Times are Racing,’ would not have been the liberating ballet that it is. A ballerina dancing en pointe transcends, she floats but she does not meet her partner on equal footing. Trainers level the sexes and framed in this manner, they create an atmosphere of refreshing accessibility that is important, even vital, if ballet wants to remain relevant. ‘You have a different energy and approach to the movement. A little more athletic and free,’ Claire Kretzschmar, twenty-six, described wearing sneakers as a corps de ballet dancer with City Ballet.
Millenials are an important demographic for ballet companies now. According to the U.S National Endowment of the Arts, 3.1% of Americans attended a ballet performance in 2017 and at City Ballet the median age of the audience is fifty eight years old. If ballet wants to survive, then it is obliged to expand its fan base and develop narratives that extend beyond the conservative love scenarios and idealised femininity of romantic ballet to address twenty-first century themes: democracy, politics and love perhaps. ‘People want to escape,’ contemporary ballet choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa explained over Skype. That’s why revivals like ‘La Sylphide,’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ turn a pretty profit: they employ elaborate sets, costumes and fairytale plots that go on for an hour and a half and they are performed with seeming effortless grace. ‘They make us dream of a better world,’ she said, but they also swish past the zeitgeist and potentially limit ballet’s appeal as the only storyline.
‘Ballet I fear for a little bit because ballet’s becoming more and more about revivals. It’s becoming more a museum art form,’ choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, echoed in a YouTube video for Big Think in 2012. A small evolution has taken place since then – namely, ballet companies have pursued diversity and innovation to noticeable effect – but the viewpoint that ballet is an elitist form, difficult to understand without knowledge of the culture and out of touch with present-day concerns persists and ballet choreographers who can harness the collective unconscious are in demand.
Crystal Pite is one such choreographer. Few women reach the zenith of what has long been a male dominated craft – ‘Ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers and man is the gardener,’ the impresario George Balanchine reflected to Life Magazine in 1965 – but she, with her determination to ‘excavate the truth’1 through emotionally jilting movement, has risen swiftly and last year she was the first woman to make a ballet, ‘Flight Pattern’, for the Royal Ballet’s main stage in eighteen years. She also admonishes the pointe. ‘It changes who the woman is. She’s not grounded. She has another kind of power, but she’s not of this earth,’ she told Laura Cappelle for the Financial Times in 2016.2
‘The Seasons’ Canon,’ a penetrating ballet performed to Max Richter’s adaption of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons,’ for the Paris Opera Ballet that year was set on demi-pointe. Built with fifty-four dancers, it is architecturally impressive in scale and poise: flailing arms pop up from a sea of bodies before they go under again, heads twitch in unison like stick insects. But what is noteworthy from a gender perspective is the egalitarianism that shines through. Devoid of soloist and principal parts there are no obvious signs of hierarchy; men and women are dressed identically in matching dark grey parachute trousers (men are bare chested and women wear nude leotards) and both wear leather ballet slippers known as demi-pointes that direct weight through the soles of the feet. From the audience’s perspective, this lends focus to the group over individuals and carries the humanist intent but flanked by three other ballets sans le chaussure de pointe for an evening at the Palais Garnier, it could also be read as a comment on the art form itself.
The wood blocked pointe shoes we know today are expensive, painful and dangerous to the untrained foot; they reinforce gender-divisions formed centuries ago and depending on whom you speak to, they present women as less woman and more girl. ‘Woman on her points, who because of the change in significant line and stress and action, ceases to be significantly a woman. She becomes an idealised and stylised creature of the theatre… there is a kind of eternal virginity about her,’ wrote novelist Rayner Happenstall of the ballerina in 1983. If there is a hypothesis for why dance-makers are turning away from the slipper, one probability is that their allegory is out of touch with ideas they are trying to express. ‘The pointe shoe can be limiting when you’re trying as a choreographer to express different social identities,’ Troy Schumacher, a soloist with City Ballet, choreographer and the founder of Ballet Collective told me in a telephone conversation.
Maria Taglioni is often hailed as the first ballerina to pop up onto her toes as the sylph in her father’s production of ‘La Sylphide,’ in 1886. This is a contested fact but what is agreed is the image of femininity she aired – unadulterated, unobtainable and exalted – still resonates. ‘Maria Taglioni was not the first on point, but she was significant because her roles became associated with being on point,’ author and dance historian, Lynn Garafola explained over the phone. To this day, ballerinas are critiqued according to the sublimity of roles they inhabit and this is in light of its narrow impression of women and it is an ideal conceived by a man.
‘Of course [pointe shoes] were invented by a man as a torture device,’ Linette Roe, the shoe supervisor for City Ballet joshed in August.
The ballerina off-pointe then is more accessible, and she broadens the readings of ballet with her independence. In April 2018, Wheeldon debuted ‘Bound to,’ a piece about emotional disconnection imposed by technology (mobile phones were props) for San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival and the dancers looked pedestrian in demi-pointes. At the same festival on opening night, Peck gave us an urban, sneaker-ballet, ‘Hurry up We’re Dreaming,’ and the next month he premiered, ‘Easy,’ for City Ballet, which showcased ballerinas having fun. In April this year, Pite’s ‘Flight Pattern,’ a work that mirrors the refugee crisis with thirty-six men and women performing in jeans, singlets and grey socks takes to the Royal Opera House stage again.
Naturally preferences in footwear do not make the ballet. However, as part of a captivating whole they can, and what these works do, is give us something to hold onto in our hearts. To watch Pite’s ‘Flight Pattern,’ set to Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Moving Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ and remain unmoved is a challenge and the themes she expresses – humility, defenselessness, hope and terror – are global and tangible to audiences that may not understand ballet culture but certainly have an opinion on what’s happening in the world outside. ‘I am also struggling with my own feelings of responsibility and powerlessness,’ Pite said in an interview with the London Evening Standard3 about the piece, and through her sensitive movement we relate.
‘I don’t think the pointe shoe is dying,’ Roe told me in August. She estimated buying and fitting roughly 11 000 pointe shoes to a shoe budget of $780 000 last year. She told me some ballerinas go through three pairs a night. The romantic ballets, the Balanchine ballets already in repertoire employ a lot of pointe-work and they make up two thirds of the performance schedule. ‘But I do see choreographers moving away from the pointe shoe,’ she said and she was referring to fashionable works made by prominent choreographers like Pite, Peck, Wheeldon and their ilk today.
If the pointe shoe is dying, it is the slow graceful death of a dying swan. ‘There are certain elements of it that make dancing quite beautiful and special,’ Schumacher told me. Trained from childhood, the ballerina rests her entire weight on a tiny block of wood where she can spin faster and longer. In ‘Swan Lake,’ Odile, the black swan whips out thirty-two fouettes (they are called ‘whips,’ in French because they whip around like spun sugar). With dark magnetism she flashes through spins that would be an anomaly in slippers. There is hope in her dazzle but she is inaccessible.
Evading the pointe transcends its symbolism and physical penalties but employed en masse to ballets made would impose a change in aesthetics (as well as the original choreographer’s intent) that many relish in effect and practice. Meghan Mann, twenty-nine, was eleven and a student at the School of American Ballet when she first tied up the thick, pink ribbons on a pair of satin pointes. ‘Going on pointe for the first time makes you feel so excited, like endless possibilities have opened up,’ she wrote in an email. ‘It is also what makes all the meticulous training seem worth it.’
Perhaps, there is a point of perfect balance.
Gudrun Willcocks is a journalism graduate of Columbia Univeristy, New York City. She currently lives in Sydney and specialises in writing about dance in general, ballet in particular.
‘Crystal Pite: I’m trying to excavate the truth,’ Luke Jennings, The Guardian, September 22nd, 2013 ↩
‘Crystal Pite: in charge of the room,’ Laura Cappelle, Financial Times, September 10, 2016 ↩
‘Crystal Pite on responding to the refugee crisis, working at the Royal Ballet and the purpose of art,’ London Evening Standard. February 28, 2017 ↩