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Pioneers of Pointe

By the end of the 19th century the ballerina faced new challenges. In Russia, in St. Petersburg, ballet flourished thanks to the patronage of the Tsars, and the genius of Petipa, Ivanov, Tchaikovsky and others. At this time there were two main — and rival — schools of ballet in Europe: the French school, which Petipa brought to Russia, and Bournonville brought to Denmark, and the Italian school of which Cecchetti is a famous example. When two of the great ballerinas of the Italian school, Virginia Zucchi and Pierina Legnani, visited St. Petersburg they had a profound effect on the history of ballet.


Whereas the French school emphasized refinement, the Italian school was more athletic. The Italians developed muscular dancers with robust technique who could perform virtuosic jumps and turns. And they had a secret weapon, a closely guarded trade secret, for turning multiple pirouettes: spotting. They also had better shoes, Italian-made slippers, with reinforced toe boxes —not nearly as hard as today’s shoes, but considerably more supportive than Taglioni’s .


Pierina Legnani
Pierina Legnani

Pierina Legnani was among the first to perform thirty-two fouettés on pointe  — a dazzling sensation. The Russian ballerinas tried to catch up technically, but found they could not manage in their soft shoes. So they asked their shoemakers to create harder shoes for them. The shoemakers obliged using the only materials they had available to them: cardboard, burlap, glue, paper, and leather.  Traditional pointe shoes are still made from these materials, as they were in the nineteenth century.


Improved pointe shoes enabled dancers to do more far more on pointe, expanding the ballerina’s vocabulary and creating tremendous opportunities for choreographic innovation. However, the new pointe technique did not win acceptance right away — far from it. It was, as it had been in Camargo’s time, a question of athleticism versus artistry, and a fear that ballet might degenerate into a series of vulgar stunts. Petipa himself is said to have disapproved at first, though he later used pointework to great effect and especially in the service of plot and character. For example, in Swan Lake Odile turns 32 fouettes in order to hypnotize Siegfried. In The Sleeping Beauty Aurora performs a series of amazing balances in the Rose Adagio to show her suitors what a poised and elegant princess she is.


Virginia Zucchi
Virginia Zucchi

The Italians contributed to another change: the shorter dancing skirt that eventually evolved into the tutu. Ballet’s traditionalism as often meant that change is suspect.  Almost every innovation in the history of ballet was highly controversial when it first appeared.  The tutu was no exception: it caused an uproar and a scandal.  Virginia Zucchi knew she was a great beauty and refused to dance in a costume that, in her words, was fit for her grandmother. She flouted the Imperial Theatre’s strict regulations and appeared in a shockingly (for that time) short shirt. The ballet world experienced yet another scandal over a ballerina’s hemline, and a controversy that persisted for years afterward.


The great Anna Pavlova reacted to the Italian pointe invasion in her own way. She struggled to master the new pointe technique and to become virtuosic like the Italians, but Pavlova was never a bravura dancer, what she had was extraordinary expressivity. So she applied pointework to the creation achingly beautiful images such the dying swan in Fokine’s eponymous ballet.


Pavlova apparently required a more supportive shoe, and may have been among the first to wear one with a stiff reinforcing shank, which she supposedly inserted in secret. She also had her shoes made with extra wide platforms, but that too, was a secret; she had all photographs of herself retouched so her pointes looked like Taglioni’s as seen in old lithographs — the Romantic ideal who balanced on the pointiest little tip. 

Anna Pavlova in "Dying Swan"
Anna Pavlova in “Dying Swan”

Copyright © 2014 by Eliza Minden. All rights reserved.