David Mead muses on pointework and a new pointe shoe for men.
While there are a few well-known exceptions, pointework in ballet has always been pretty much a female domain. But says Sergey Bobrov, former Bolshoi Ballet soloist, now artistic director of the Russian State Ballet of Siberia and president of pointe shoe manufacturer Siberian Swan, “It’s about time male dancers were recognised as a separate and competent group of pointe shoe users.” And he’s now doing just that as Siberian Swan launches the Rudolf: a pointe shoe developed specifically for men.
Men on pointe is nothing new. Where it’s been done on stage, it’s largely been played as parody as by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. As anyone who has watched these guys in class will testify, though, their technique is rock solid. Notable comedy roles in regular ballets include Bottom in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Pyotr in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream and, most recently, both stepsisters in Stanton Welch’s Cinderella.
Examples are rarer but men have appeared on pointe in serious works too. William Forsythe tried it, although perhaps best known are those by Edouard Lock in his Amelia and Amjad for La La La Human Steps. Most recently, Michelle Dorrance had the men and women of American Ballet Theatre in pointe shoes to amplify the sound of their feet in rehearsals for her Praedicere, although only Tyler Maloney actually appeared in them in performance.
For Lock, it added an intriguing ambiguity and a sharp look at gender roles. “The man on pointe? To me it’s not a big deal, although so many people seem to pick up on it. The pointe technique is an interesting one and it’s not got male or female written all over it. I don’t see why women should have a stranglehold on it – it’s really all about training and opportunity,” he once said. The title, Amjad, incidentally is a gender-neutral Arabic term that can refer to men or women.
Away from the stage, you can occasionally spot men in pointe class. Some are actually rather good. For many it’s simply about the challenge, enjoying the challenge even; and trust me, it is certainly that! For others it may be another way to build ankle strength or foot flexibility. I guarantee they learn a lot about weight and balance. On pointe, the weight of the body is not down into the toes, and they’ll find they have to work to pull up and out of the shoe too.
Some men may be looking for a perspective about what a female partner has to go through. One thing I will guarantee is that all will gain empathy and greater respect for female dancers who make it all look so effortless (trust me, it’s not!), and admiration from the women in the class for actually giving it a go.
Whether it will ever catch on in schools, who knows, but the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College in the US has just renamed its male and female variations and pas de deux classes to start with the qualifying phrase, “Constructed Gender Identities in Classical Ballet”. What it means is that all the classes will be open to male and female students alike. “As a higher education institution, we do not want to be offering a course that’s only available to certain students based on their gender identity,” executive director Cathy Young is on record as saying.
Whether professionally or recreationally, pointework for men needs proper training. While it sounds obvious, men are different! Male dancers are usually stronger but they are also heavier and have a different centre of balance. Without proper guidance, pointework can cause serious ankle, knee and calf injuries.
But as Bobrov says, “It is not that men cannot go onto pointe for some anatomical reason. It is simply that it is “not the done thing.” Of course, there will always be naysayers and those who ridicule it. Reversing matters, certain women’s sports such as Football and Rugby once got similar responses.
With gender differences becoming increasingly blurred, especially in contemporary ballet, this will change and it was only a matter of time before someone developed a male pointe shoe, he believes. “We happened to be the first because we make pointe shoes for our own ballet company needs, according to our dancers’ requirements and advice. All we had to do was just to follow the request and deliver the needed product.”
He believes more male dancers would use pointe shoes in their regular practice if they could actually get them in their size. Only a few manufacturers have large sizes and even then they are probably not in stock in any store. And, of course, they are all made on a woman’s last.
And while most men will find something that fits reasonably well, men’s feet are different. The width of their feet at the ball, instep, and heel, as well as the ball circumference and length, are significantly larger than for women. The toe region, instep, medial and lateral malleoli heights (the bony prominence on each side of the ankle) are usually smaller, however. “A separate male model could not be just be a scaled bigger version of a classic female pointe shoe,” he says.
Bobrov and Siberian Swan analysed male dancers’ needs and requirements and found out that they are often particularly looking to pointework as a flexibility and strengthening tool. The result is the Rudolf, a new pointe shoe developed specifically for slightly tapered or square male feet.
It has a roomy box, a medium-high vamp with a v-cut throat, a medium profile and a wide platform. A harder shank is used to help the less flexible male feet get on pointe, and is made of a high-quality engineered plastic to ensure durability. The patented Arch Support Technology of other Siberian Swan models that controls the degree of flexibility of the inner-sole both at the heel and the demi-pointe area, was adapted to support the male foot and. The box is made of natural materials.
The Rudolf doesn’t have pleats and is provided with a noise reducing layer. It comes in sizes from 6.5 (39 European) to 12 (46 European), and in four widths: from XXX (male narrow) to XXXXXX (male very wide). The default shanks are M (medium), H (hard) and SH (super-hard). Colour-wise, the choice is matte beige or black, the former being a ‘signature’ of the Siberian Swan brand
And why ‘Rudolf’? Siberian Swan’s existing female models are named Pavlova and Karsavina. So, when it came to a male model, ‘Rudolf” simply suggested itself, says Bubrov. “It is also my father’s first name. I just approved it in the blink of an eye.”
I’ve only seen photos of the new Rudolf shoe but the website bestpointe.com reports that it already has dozens of pre-orders, even though buying on-line, and especially a model you’ve never tried before, is fraught with issues, no matter how comprehensive the process is. But it certainly suggests the demand is there. I certainly look forward to trying a pair sometime.
The first Rudolf pointe shoes will be released to the retail market this month.
For more details of Siberian Swan, visit www.siberian-swan.eu.