Last night I watched a wonderful program, PBS's Independent Lens, which featured a documentary about Misty Copeland, ABT's, (American Ballet Theatre's) principal ballerina, crowned on June 30, 2015. But the most striking thing about her coronation is that Misty the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT's 75-year history.
It's quite an achievement when you think that the most compelling image we generally have of the ballerina is the White Swan from Swan Lake. And, indeed, the ABT and every major ballet company in history has thought that until now!
How lovely to see that someone can be acknowledged on their merit rather than their race, or nationality, or particular look. I find it so inspiring, as the ballet has always been close to my heart.
When I was little, my Mom took me to start lessons, as this was her passion from a little girl, and with that love of the art in mind, she took me to see what it was like. Though I loved it in general, I was too scared, too shy to try. I was about 5 or 6, and I cried my way out of it. Understanding me, she did not say you must, and so we left. It was not until much later, that I tried again, more as a form of exercise, and I found it a wonderful, ethereal experience, but now I was too old to pursue it seriously. And so, watching Misty last night, I thought I would look at Ballet in the 18th Century.
Of course, Ballet is a type of performance art that originated in the Italian Renaissance court in the 15th Century, with technique and a vocabulary all its own based in French. But by the 18th Century, the ballet had moved from the royal court to the Paris Opera, with the director Lully preserving the form, but moving it forward to a much larger spectacle with choreography and costuming that liberated the dancer. This also was the point in time (no pun intended) that pointework came into fashion: Wearing the heel-less shoe, with the box toe that you could stand on, known as the demi-pointe.
The mid-18th Century dancer Marie Camargo of the Paris Opera Ballet was the first to hear these shoes, making her able to leap and twirl like never before. Eventually after the French Revolution, the shoe further evolved into the shoe we know today, secured by ribbons and incorporating pleats under the toes to enable dancers to fully extend their feet. It's truly a beautiful and graceful look. But it is not without cost, and I don't mean dollars. Years of physical abuse do take toll on the foot's shape. But I think every ballerina would say it's worth it.
Interestingly enough, the first dancers to get up on toe did so with an invention designed by Charles Didelot in 1795. His "flying machine" pointe shoes helped lift dancers up with on their toes before leaving the ground. The look was so airy that choreographers started looking for more ways to employ the technique in the performances.
By the way, my Mom kept her old "flying machines" and one day gave them to my daughter to keep, because she too loves the ballet.