The toe shoe brigade marches on. The repertories of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater and the Kirov Ballet this spring and summer at Lincoln Center abounded with works that demand dancing on point - toe dancing. That's no surprise. Point work is a standard part of classical training for women.
Yet the omnipresence of point steps today could inspire a rebel to shout: "Stamp out balletic footwear fetishes! End the tyranny of the toe shoe!"Recently, Jerome Robbins did just that. City Ballet's hit this season was "West Side Story Suite," Robbins's balletic distillation of the 1957 Broadway musical.
There are no toe shoes for the young women who inhabit the ballet's New York slums. Such footgear would look inappropriately frilly in the gritty street scenes.
In contrast, Oleg Vinogradov used point shoes in a much too facile manner when he choreographed "Cinderella," which was part of the Kirov repertory when the company appeared earlier this summer at the Metropolitan Opera House.
One of Vinogradov's themes is that the Fairy Godmother introduces Cinderella to a vision of beauty and harmony, which is symbolized by classical ballet.
Thus, at the start of the fairy tale Cinderella wears enormous and ungainly clogs, then changes into point shoes as the magic takes effect.
But Vinogradov negates his own concept by having all the other women, even the vain stepmother and the mean-spirited stepsisters, also dance on point. As a result, classicism, or at least this aspect of classical technique, no longer serves to symbolize the ideal.
There is nothing inherently wrong with point steps. But to limit women's technique almost exclusively to them, as is often done now, is to fall victim to esthetic conformism. There is more to ballet than toe dancing.
Point technique is a relatively recent invention; it was unknown before the early 19th century. But no one can deny its effectiveness. For instance, point steps enable women to skim across the stage in such classics as "Swan Lake" and "Giselle." By rising on their toes, dancers can make their movements unusually lucid.
No wonder George Balanchine, the century's greatest master of balletic abstraction, loved intricate patterns on point.
But Balanchine never ignored other technical possibilities. For instance, in the dreamlike first section of his "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," which City Ballet offered this season, he made women seem vulnerable by having them dance barefoot. In the brilliant theme-and-variations episode that concludes the work, women appear confident and authoritative, for they are now on point.
Just as no one would insist that women be barefoot in every ballet, so there is no reason for them to be always in point shoes. Yet too many choreographers today appear to use toe steps out of sheer force of habit, as if they instinctively equate ballet with women on tiptoe.
There are times when a mixture of shoes can actually heighten a work's dramatic effectiveness. In the Royal Danish Ballet version of "Coppelia," which dates from 1896, only Swanilda, the comedy's mischievous heroine, dances on point, and she does so vivaciously.
Simply because her movements make her different from everyone else, it is easy to believe that she is more clever.
One young contemporary choreographer who recently missed an opportunity to use footgear imaginatively is Damian Woetzel. When he devised the second-act dance sequence for the New York City Opera's production of Borodin's "Prince Igor" last fall, he sought to create barbaric tribal festivities, as the plot demands.
Many of Woetzel's steps were inventive, and some were appropriately savage, but not those for the women. Because he put them on point, one was more conscious of the artifice of their movements than the wildness.
Back in 1909, Michel Fokine staged that same episode with such success that it is often presented today as an independent ballet under the title of "Prince Igor." No one in this version is on point.