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.