Eighteenth-Century Pointe

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

It is a commonplace in dance histories to claim that pointe was an innovation of the nineteenth century. This is, in fact, a misconception: pointe was clearly in use already in the eighteenth century. The clearest reference to such early use comes from Magri (1779: 1/91), who writes that the French dancer Antoine-Bonaventure Pitrot (fl. 1744-1770)

does not remain in equilibrium on the ball of one foot, as others do, but raises the whole body on the tip of the big toe and straightens all the joints so perfectly that the thigh, the leg, and the foot itself fall into one perpendicular line.

And there is some evidence that Pitrot was not the only eighteenth-century dancer to perform this feat. Almost certainly, Sandham, an early eighteenth-century English dancer specializing apparently in comic and grotesque roles, performed on pointe in his dance the Dutch Skipper during the 1721-22 season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. A bill draws attention to his performance “on his Toes” (cited in Highfill 1991: 13/202). If the phrase is taken to mean simply ‘on the balls of the feet,’ then there would have been little need to highlight this manner in a bill, since a high rise on the ball was the norm in eighteenth-century theatrical dance.

Almost certainly, a further example is mentioned in a description of a performance seen by Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1935: 31) at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1710:

A man appeared as Scaramouche, but he was far from being as elegant a dancer [as Hestor Santlow, who preceded him], though he excels in droll attitudes, leaping and contortions of the body, in which I never saw his equal. The most amazing of all was that he danced a “Chique” [i.e., a jig] with great agility on the tips of his toes with his feet turned entirely inwards, so that one cannot conceive how he was able to bend his feet thus backwards, stand on tiptoes, and spring about without straining his feet or breaking them at the ankle-joints.

A description of Giovanna Baccelli’s début at the Paris Opéra in 1782 also alludes to the “tours de force” of landing, balancing, and pirouetting “sur l’orteil” (‘on the toe’):

It was in the ballet in the second act of Électre, to an air by Monsieur Sacchini, that Mademoiselle Baccelli débuted yesterday. It cannot be gainsaid that she is a most agreeable dancer, who links strength and a brilliant execution to a neat figure; but because her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s (who made her appearance a few months ago and who already has many partisans), she excited less admiration especially in her tours de force of landing, holding herself, and pirouetting on the toe [sur l’orteil] without losing anything of the nobility and grace in her role, which the former did as well. (Bachaumont 1783: 21/1/ii = 16 Nov. 1782)

The “landing” sur l’orteil here most likely refers to a sharp rise onto the toe with the ball raised off the floor in a terre-à-terre jump. Indeed, springing up onto the tips of the toes is in fact prescribed by Gourdoux-Daux (1817: 55-56) in his description of the “assemblé upon the toe,” within the context of even ballroom dance technique.

Place yourself according to the rules of deportment, the knees straight, the feet in the third position. To perform this motion, place the weight of your body entirely upon the fore foot and straight upon the hip; this will disengage the hind foot. Bend upon the fore knee, raising, at the same time, the hind foot upon the toes. This motion will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold it well turned out and unfold it by sliding the foot with the toes low and near the floor towards the [56] second position, which it will reach, being extended, at the same moment the foot you stand on will reach its utmost bend. To rise up straight again, hold the foot extended which is pointed in the second position, and drawing it on the toes towards the ones you stand on, you will enter it above that one, which will be straightened at the same moment that the foot, coming from the second position, will reach the third, where you will continue to hold yourself upon the tip of your toes, bending them down as much as possible, and let the heels come down gradually.

That pointe is indeed referred to in the description of Baccelli is strongly suggested by the fact that the expression sur l’orteil was used in the first part of the nineteenth century to refer to a position on the toe(s), and not on the ball. Saint-Léon (1852: 31), for example, writes that

to be sur l’orteil is said of that position of the feet wherein the body is carried onto the tip of the toes, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the little phalanx of the big toe and onto the little phalanxes of the four other toes. . . [In contrast,] to be sur la demi-pointe is said of that position of the feet wherein the heel leaves the floor while the body is carried onto the front of the foot, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the back of the sesamoid bone and the metatarsal bones of the toes.

Saint-Léon is clearly referring here to an alternative form of pointe, one wherein the toes are not fully vertical, and the body’s weight is borne by the pads of the toes, with the ball still lifted from the floor. This version might be called “pad-pointe” as opposed to “tip-pointe.” (These two forms might have been distinguished by the expressions sur les orteils and sur les pointes respectively; Michel Saint-Léon (1829: 13r) seems to use them contrastively when he occasionally notes that a rise is to be done “sur les pointes / orteils,” although synonymity is not out of the question.)

The pictorial record suggests that these two forms of pointe existed side by side in the first part of the nineteenth century. Consider the depictions of the feet in figures 1-3: the first two show “pad-pointe,” and the third “tip-pointe.

Figure 1. The three Prices: Sophie, Amalie, Juliette, circa 1850s.

Figure 2. Deblin, Mr. Conway, and Mrs. Conway, New York, 1827.

Figure 3. Geneviève Gosselin, 1815.

As is apparent from these figures, men as well as women could rise up sur l’orteil or sur la pointe. And this was clearly true for dancers in the eighteenth century as well. In an extant engraving of Pierre Gardel from the 1790s (fig. 4), the lack of foreshortening in the toes of his right foot strongly suggests that a position sur la pointe is intended. Indeed, the engraving agrees completely with Magri’s description of Pitrot’s pointe given above.

Figure 4. Pierre Gardel in a small pose, circa 1790s.

An eighteenth-century example of “pad-pointe” is possibly shown in an engraving of Gallini (fig. 5), although the diagonal line of the forepart of the weight-bearing foot may be simply due to the engraving’s lack of skill.

Figure 5. Giovanni Gallini in a small pose, 1762.

Bachaumont states that Baccelli excited less admiration during her début at the Paris Opéra because “her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s,” and that Bacelli’s feat of dancing sur l’orteil, Eléonore Dupré “did as well.”

These few references suggest, moreover, that pointe-work was largely a virtuoso feat in the eighteenth century, and that the norm was still to rise on the ball rather than on the toe(s). These moments of pointe, moreover, were apparently just that, virtuoso moments, such that the position was normally not maintained for long in the course of a dance. Indeed, what made Geneviève Gosselin’s pointe-work so memorable were both the remarkable duration of these moments and their frequency of occurrence. A critic in Le journal des débats (3 Aug. 1827), for example, writes that “her astonishing flexibility of limb and her muscular power . . . allowed her to remain suspended for a minute or two on the extreme tips of her feet.” And “she could rise more often than usual on the point of her feet, presenting an elegant body supported, so to speak, on the big toe, or on a single toe-nail” (Journal de Paris 23 Jul. 1813).

It is unclear how far back the use of pointe goes. The material available for the pre-eighteenth-century periods is simply too sparse to make any certain claim about the origin of the technique. But given the high level of skill achieved by early acrobats, who were able to perform amazing feats of contortion, jumping, and balance already by the beginning of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 28-33), it would not be surprising if pointe originated fairly early among this latter class of performer and then eventually spread to more highbrow performances. Indeed, it was not unknown for some performers to lead a double life as acrobat and dancer (especially in the comic and grotesque styles). Consider the figure of Antoni, who was

in his day the most perfect rope-dancer [i.e., acrobat who performed dances on a tightrope] ever seen in France. His dancing was noble and easy, such that a skilled dancer might have performed on a stage. To this talent he united that of jumping with admirable elevation, justness, and precision, not to mention that he was original in the dance of the Drunkard, which he performed several times on the stage of the Académie Royale de Musique [i.e., the Paris Opéra] to the liking of all connoisseurs. (Parfaict 1756: 1/152-53)

Interestingly enough, two of the earliest allusions to pointe, adduced above, are found in connection with dances for low characters.

And finally, it should be stressed that a pointe position does not require a modern pointe-shoe. (For a brief discussion of eighteenth-century dance shoes, click here.)

The foregoing is a somewhat abbreviated presentation of material from my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



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Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
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