Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 July 2014
The development of pointe technique rightly can be viewed as a “technical revolution” in the history of ballet, but its origins and early manifestations are among the intriguing mysteries of this ephemeral art. The discussion that follows will explore those mysteries by examining sources heretofore largely ignored: the technical treatises about dancing written by ballet masters of the late-eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. These books and manuscripts reveal the most frequently taught steps and positions performed on full pointe, the dance phrases in which those movements occurred, and the exercises deemed necessary to “gain strength on the points of the toes.” Such an examination suggests that early pointe work was not an exclusively feminine activity, nor was the earliest exponent of this phenomenon a ballerina of the nineteenth century.
It would seem reasonable to expect dance technique notebooks and manuals to yield clear documentation and definitions of such a “revolutionary” phenomenon as pointe work. At the very least it would seem that the authors of those treatises would call attention to the new “discovery” which soon was to become “one of the prime features of the Romantic ballet.” But, that view of the revolutionary nature of dancing on pointe comes from our own twentieth century hindsight, not from those who first experienced the phenomenon. Rather, the earliest nineteenth century accounts by dancing masters treat pointe work in a casual manner, thus suggesting they were depicting a quite logical, but hardly remarkable, development. For example, E.A. Théleur's book on technique, Letters on Dancing (London, 1831), describes and illustrates poses corresponding to second, fourth, and fifth positions that can be made either “on the balls of the feet or on the points of the toes.” Théleur, in an even more nonchalant manner, uses his only two illustrations of dancers on the tips of their toes as examples of proper positions for the arms rather than as depictions of positions on the points of the toes.