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Pointe Shoes -- and Ballerinas -- as Technology


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#1 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 09:01 AM

Pointe shoes made the ballerinas of the New York City Ballet into technological artifacts, modern and indistinguishable "like IBM machines"


That's the lead in for a brief article by science historian Suzanne Fischer posted on The Atlantic's website yesterday. The article summarizes "A Case in Pointe: Making Streamlined Bodies and Interchangeable Ballerinas at the New York City Ballet," a paper presented by Whitney Laemmli (a University of Pennsylvania graduate student) at the Society for the History of Technology conference in Cleveland held this past weekend.

George Balanchine, the charismatic director who ran the New York City Ballet and its School of American Ballet, rethought pointe shoes. He worked with Salvatore Capezio to develop and patent pointe shoes to produced the exact lines of the foot and leg he thought beautiful, and to be quieter and less clunky than earlier pointe shoes. He required all dancers (not just the principals) to go on pointe -- and not for a few short moments, but for hours at a time.

Laemmli argues that the new shoes forced dancers' bodies to move in new ways. Dancers on this pointe regimen developed characteristically long, lean leg muscles. Balanchine also encouraged dancers to let the shoes remake their bodies, including developing bunions that gave the foot just the right line. And as their bodies were remade, dancers became "like IBM machines," modern and indistinguishable.


I haven't been able to find Laemmli's paper on line anywhere, and I'm reluctant to base an assessment of her thesis on a brief summary written by another person, but I'm not sure I buy it. I don't know enough about dance physiology to be able to assess the claim that the modern pointe shoe and developments in the use of pointe technique led to "characteristically long, lean leg muscles," so I'll leave that to the more knowledgeable members of this board. But one of the raps against NYCB's corps has always been its lack of uniformity, and it is much more uniform now than it was when Balanchine was alive. The conventional wisdom that Balanchine ballerinas were all tall, thin women with long necks and small heads falls apart when you start listing them. Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Merrill Ashley, Karin von Aroldingen, and Darci Kistler were hardly stamped out by the same cookie-cutter. To my eye, the dancers in the Mariinsky corps are much more uniform in body type and presentation -- has it always been thus?

Stylistic uniformity, which matters as much as if not more than uniformity in body type, is the product of an aesthetic, not a technology.

#2 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 01:15 PM

I'd have to see the paper, but the article about it doesn't appear to speak to thorough or informed research.

#3 Cordelia

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 03:25 PM

I don't think the grad student knows enough about history and technical aspects of ballet, if she did then she would not put forth a crazy theory like this one. Why would having bunions contribute to dancers' line? Wouldn't they impede pointe technique or technique in general? I also do not know how certain pointe shoes would make longer muscles, because when you are en pointe you are using same muscles regardless of pointe shoes construction. I believe it has more to do with technique and emphasis on certain aspects of technique when it comes to elongating muscles. As a student I used to take out the shank sometimes because I could actually dance better without the shank when doing certain steps. I stopped when I was told it was inviting injuries. Also my teachers said that bulky leg muscles is partly due to not pulling up and thus sinking into the shoes. I knew many girls who were allowed to go en pointe early even though they didn't have proper strength or alignment. Those were the girls who developed bunions and ankles problems later on, they definitely did not have better line with painful bunions.

#4 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 10:31 PM

I thought the whole fuss referring to Balanchine's dancers and ballets as being like "IBM" was all about "Agon," and hadn't been mentioned since.

I saw that article this morning, and just started laughing! Laemmli must not be familiar with the many collections of personal accounts such as "Balanchine's Ballerinas" or any of the memoirs from dancers like Merrill Ashley, where they discuss Balanchine's insistence on wearing and working in pointe shoes all the time. They were very aware that this practice changed their way of working and their bodies, but they certainly didn't think it was to their disadvantage, or made them become like automatons.

#5 Marga

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 11:05 PM

Why would having bunions contribute to dancers' line?

Balanchine, it is said, liked bunions because they made the foot look winged (especially when they made the toes go a little crooked so they angled more 'up' in arabesque, for example).

#6 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 07:39 AM

Having myself once been a graduate student in the grip of A Theory (way back when “Theory” first got its capital T), I can see how someone might have drawn a line through a few data points (Balanchine experimented with pointe technique, Balanchine experimented with pointe shoe design, Balanchine’s ballerina’s didn’t look like Taglioni-era sylphs, Balanchine said “We have no stars”); connected it to another line drawn between technology, toolmaking, and interchangeable parts; read Sarah Kaufman’s piece about the fell influence of Balanchine (which we discussed here) started free-associating, and ended up with the notion that modern ballerinas are as indistinguishable as mass-produced machines. Someone somewhere has surely performed the same operation with football players (sans Kaufman, of course).

I haven’t read Laemmli’s paper—I cannot stress this enough—and in fairness her work may be more rigorous than The Atlantic’s summary makes it seem. Nothing in the summary itself seems particularly objectionable until we get to the fourth paragraph and the claim that “as their bodies were remade, dancers became ‘like IBM machines,’ modern and indistinguishable” and that “stars became a less central feature of dance companies as dancers became more interchangeable” as a result. The very fact that dances are still choreographed on very specific bodies, and that those bodies in all their individual particularity inform the choreography would seem to belie that notion.

An aside: Fischer wraps up her summary with this:

The history of technology doesn't talk much about art. That's why Laemmli's paper is important, paying attention not just to how dancers used their tools, but also how their tools changed them.


The history of technology may not talk much about art, but historians of art do talk a lot about technology—everything from the unremarkable insight that technology changes tools which changes technique to more hotly debated propositions— for instance, that the development of lenses and projected images (as in a camera obscura) changed the way that paintings look because the world as captured through a lens looks very different from the world as seen through an unmediated human eye.

I don't think anyone would dispute that dancers' bodies have changed over time, and it would be interesting to explore how much of this is due to changes in taste, technique, training, and tools -- as well has how changes in technique might have led us to "see" the body differently and thereby changed what we wanted them to look like.

#7 dirac

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 11:19 AM

Nothing in the summary itself seems particularly objectionable until we get to the fourth paragraph and the claim that “as their bodies were remade, dancers became ‘like IBM machines,’ modern and indistinguishable” and that “stars became a less central feature of dance companies as dancers became more interchangeable” as a result. The very fact that dances are still choreographed on very specific bodies, and that those bodies in all their individual particularity inform the choreography would seem to belie that notion.


Also that there have been few decades more star-driven than the 1970s, when Balanchine was the acknowledged king of the hill.

It is fair to say that bodies have become more uniform over time as directors were able to pick and choose from a larger talent pool. But that hasn't made stars any less valuable (or rare during certain periods).

It is worth emphasizing, as Kathleen does, that we are reading a summary and not the paper itself. Charity, charity.....

#8 puppytreats

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 12:03 PM

Didn't Farrell say that the point was individuals acting together, uniformly, rather than cookie-cutter, replaceable dancers?

Maybe the author just watched Altman's ballet movie and got this idea about dancers....

#9 emilienne

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 02:17 PM

I can tell you from experience that summaries and even conference abstracts can be highly misleading, as authors can (and often will) change details at the last minute. We haven't seen this paper, so what is there to speculate on?

Following the received wisdom that we graduate students love it when people ask to see our works of genius*, I'm now trying to get in contact with the author. Will update if I can obtain a copy of the paper.

*I haven't produced anything of value yet**, and no, I don't know when I'll be done with my dissertation. (hides)

**This first assertion may change after November ends.

#10 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 02:54 PM

I can tell you from experience that summaries and even conference abstracts can be highly misleading, as authors can (and often will) change details at the last minute. We haven't seen this paper, so what is there to speculate on?

Following the received wisdom that we graduate students love it when people ask to see our works of genius*, I'm now trying to get in contact with the author. Will update if I can obtain a copy of the paper.

*I haven't produced anything of value yet**, and no, I don't know when I'll be done with my dissertation. (hides)

**This first assertion may change after November ends.


Oh thank you, emilienne! I'd really be interested in reading it if it's something she's ready to release outside of the conference confines.

Sigh ... I never did finish my dissertation. The good news is, no one ever had to read it. (I was hoping to make some genius observations about Herman Melville and Thomas Carlyle.)

#11 sandik

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 11:47 AM

I emailed the author of the paper, and asked if she would be willing to share, but have not heard back from her. (and indeed, if the paper is supposed to come out in a conference proceedings document, she may need to wait until that is past) I agree that we have only the Atlantic description to read here, but I am very interested in hearing more about her research. While I don't agree that pointe shoes have led exclusively and inexorably to a monoculture in ballet, they have had an incredible affect on the development of technique, and that absolutely has had an affect on aesthetics.

Historians of technology have contributed to some excellent work in other fields, particularly in sociology and political science, and art historians have done fascinating work linking the changes in style and topic to industrial chemistry -- I think there are a lot of things that we could examine in dance history related to cultural and scientific development.

#12 Hamorah

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Posted 19 November 2011 - 10:43 AM

I don't think that the uniformity has anything to do with pointe shoes, but more to what the AD's are looking for in dancers they give contracts to. I saw the Zurich Ballet some years ago (not on this last visit, so it may be different now) and the girls actually looked like clones from where I was sitting. Their bodies, " long lean leg muscles" and height of extensions were totally uniform. They were all amazing, but how I missed the days of individuality.............

#13 Ray

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Posted 19 November 2011 - 11:21 AM

Like Sandi, I'm very happy to see more people in far-flung fields consider ballet (or even just dance) as a worthy topic of study. I just read, in fact, a paper written by a literary scholar of the middle ages about the medievalism of Raymonda. It's pretty fascinating; when it appears in print I will let people know.

#14 Meesnell

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Posted 24 November 2011 - 08:53 AM

"IBM Machines"

Personally, I would have metaphorically described the NYCB ballerinas as (insert latest Apple invention not yet available to the public)... but that's just me.
I know ballet, and I am always wanting to know more about everything it entails.. which includes reading and contemplating certain ideas, theories, etc, that make me uncomfortable. This brief exsert from an article is one of those. However, I do know that in order to have an inteligent conversation about a topic one is passionate about, one must also study some aspects of that topic that make him or her feel uncomfortable, thus he or she is better prepared to discuss without getting defensive. I see the authors point... especially if I pretend to have the average American knowledge of ballet. To a observer, ballerinas do look very similar. They walk the same, hold their bodies the same, and hell... dance the same. The streamlining of the pointe shoe fitting process for company members, by G.B. freed up time for the dancers to actually dance and train. This, most likely, led to the streamlining of the dancer as well... not a bad thing. In fact, contrary to the author's statement about ballerinas being "indistinguishable", the professionally fit/made pointe shoes provided to modern ballet companies has created that much MORE DISTINGUISHABLE dancers. Dancers, that have time to perfect their craft, as opposed to hunching over pointe shoes entangled in thread and satin ribbon... The dancers put on the shoes, knowing immediately they are perfect, and they start rehearsing their kitri or giselle right away. And, its only logical that with the insanely busy schedules dancers have, that having already "ready to wear" shoes at the drop of a hat, would benefit all. This leaves room for a soloist to perhaps get injured on tour time to recover, because the understudy is just as prepared because shes not frantically safety pinning elastic to her shoes.
Which actually leads me to another thought... the need the audience has for "more"... More fouettes, more rotations... The audience is always wanting new, more, bigger, newer, etc... I suppose it's a human instinct... With this almost impossible demand coming from ballet doers, the ballerina
HAD to be streamlined to please them, meeting their seeminglly unattainable expectations! Yeah! It's all their fault! :) lol
Anyways, thats my take

Meesh

"It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer."




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