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The Ethereal Woman

Marie Taglioni
Marie Taglioni

Marie Taglioni was not the first to dance on pointe but she’s the one who made it great. She developed and refined what had been a mere trick into a genuine means of artistic expression. Starting with the first full-length ballet on pointe, La Sylphide in 1832, she led the era of Romantic Ballet and became such a superstar that her fans supposedly cooked her shoes and ate them with a sauce.


“Tag” was in the right place at the right time: the Romantic era.  The art, poetry and music of the day celebrated beauty, passion, nature, and of course, the power of love. The ballets of that time are typically passionate, and tragic encounters between a mortal man and a supernatural female — a character who symbolizes beauty, nature, love, and immortality.



Taglioni "balancing" on a flower
Taglioni “balancing” on a flower

The Romantic Era ballets as well as the classics that came later, are full of magical creatures: fairies: (Sugar Plum and Dewdrop Fairies in The Nutcracker, Lilac Fairy and the Fairy Godmothers in The Sleeping Beauty, Titiana in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), ghosts (Wilis in Giselle, Shades in La Bayadére), enchanted birds, (Swan Lake and Firebird), as well as numerous sylphs, (La Sylphide and Les Sylphides), sprites and nymphs. Toe dancing enabled the ballerina to convincingly portray such otherworldly characters. When she rose on pointe she achieved a supernatural grace, an ethereal weightlessness and delicacy. She could appear unbound by gravity, skimming the earth, floating, or hovering above it.  She was so light and dainty she could balance on a flower. (Taglioni  had a piece of scenery that looked like a flower, but made strong enough to support her weight so that she could create this illusion.)


Costumes and stagecraft helped, too. In her long white billowy Romantic tutu, starkly simple compared with the ornate costumes of the previous century, the Romantic ballerina was all feminine purity and virtue. The relatively new invention of gaslight enhanced the effect, providing her a ghostly, moonlit glow.


Not just another virtuosic feat like the first entrechat quatre, toe dancing was a means of enriching the drama by expanding the female character. Lincoln Kirstein called it “the speech of the inexpressible.” The poor earthbound male was enraptured by the ethereal beauty, purity, and grace of his idealized female, but being involved with the supernatural typically ends badly (except of course in Giselle, one of the most popular and enduring ballets of all time, in which love triumphs over everything, even death).


The advent of toe dancing “elevated” the female dancer to her current prominence in ballet. It was wildly popular, but in terms of technique and virtuosity toe dancing required not much more than a single pirouette or piqué to a brief balance. Dancers’ alignment was different: it was less vertical: the hips were released back and the upper body tilted slightly forward. The ballerina was not “over her feet” as are today’s dancers, nor could she be without today’s hard pointe shoes. Taglioni and her contemporaries wore soft, tight-fitting satin slippers. They had leather soles, and some darning on the sides and under, not on, the tip. That’s all; it must have been a lot like standing barefoot. The blocked pointe shoe with a stiff sole as we know it today did not evolve until much later.

Older version of pointe shoes
Emma Livry’s slippers, c.1860


Copyright © 2014 by Eliza Minden. All rights reserved.