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Vignette, 4-23: Taglioni's Shoe
Memory & Memorabilia

Marie Taglioni as "La Sylphide." Colored lithograph; 52 x 33.2 cm. Engr. by Cattier after A. Deveria. Pub. by Goupil and Vibert, n.d. Image courtesy Dance Books Ltd.

By Tobi Tobias
Copyright 2003 Tobi Tobias

(This piece from the Dance Insider Archive was first posted online on April 23, 2003. For more from Tobi Tobias on the Dance Insider, click here. To read recent articles by Tobi Tobias on ArtsJournal.com, please click here.)

The Sighting

I was standing before a glass case -- in a museum or library dedicated to theater memorabilia, I think. Or perhaps an exhibition space in an opera house. Where? New York? London? Paris? Can't recall. When? No idea. Perhaps decades ago. All I remember -- but the memory is piercing -- is that this particular vitrine displayed a selection of dancing shoes, all pre-20th-century, all shaped, frayed, and soiled through use. And among them, feather-light on its transparent shelf, lay a single ballet slipper, clearly from the Romantic era, when the ladies of the ballet first rose to the tips of their toes, to hover for a fleeting moment, as if buoyed by the air itself.

Shod in such footwear, ballerinas of that time created their supreme illusion. They were ethereal beings whose debt to gravity was minimal. Their contact with the cloddish earth, and the flawed folk anchored to it, was evanescent -- yet charged with ecstasy and its twin sister, tragedy. The slipper, caged in glass like an insect in amber now that its day and duties were past, was a flimsy affair of satin anchored to a pliant leather base. The fabric had been emphatically darned around the sides and front of the toe sheath, such reinforcement being the sole support of yesteryear's artists of the dance. Its exhibition offered some tangible evidence, albeit oblique, of feats that otherwise reach today's dance aficionado only through legend, charmingly improbable etchings, and poetic evocation. ("She floats like a spirit in a transparent mist of white muslin with which she loves to surround herself, and she resembles a contented soul scarcely bending the petals of celestial flowers with the tips of her rosy feet." -- Theophile Gautier, on Marie Taglioni, 1837) The slipper was pale, with a faint blush suggesting it might once have been pink. I remember it as being attributed to Taglioni.

The Nature of Relics

Why should such relics move us? Why do they inspire in us feelings of awe and love? Why should they make us feel a kind of intimacy with the person to whom, it's alleged, they belonged? The psychology involved is similar to that attending the veneration of bone fragments claimed to be earthly remains of a mortal later canonized as a saint. Reverence for the wonders attributed to the person is transferred to the otherwise ordinary object once attached to the remarkable one, who is long since gone.

Needless to say, such reverence requires a generous portion of belief on the part of the worshipper, who must be not merely acquainted with the story of the marvels but also convinced that they really occurred. Without the background information plus the magical thinking, the bone is merely a specimen from the anatomy lab; the dancing slipper, just an old, beat-up shoe. The objects themselves are utterly common; we, in our need and desire, transmute them into the uncommon.

Why a Shoe?

In times gone by, the fetish object associated with an adored, idealized woman was usually a glove or a flower worn in her bosom. Gautier, that indispensable chronicler of the French Romantic ballet, provided the poem that seven decades later inspired Fokine to create "Le Spectre de la rose," the dance that epitomizes the rose-breast association:

"Je suis le spectre d'une rose
Que tu portais hier au bal....
Mon destin fut digne d'envie...
. Car sur ton sein j'ai mon tombeau.

(I am the ghost of the rose
That you wore last night at the ball....
My destiny is worthy of envy...
For on your breast I have my tomb.)"

But why should the prosaic shoe inspire such veneration? The answer is easy. In a dancer, the foot is more significant than the hand or even the breast (though the latter is both an object of sensual desire and the cage of the heart). As the glove is to the hand, the shoe has sheathed the dancing foot like a second skin. Animated by its wearer, it has traced the steps of the dance. What's more, being malleable, it has taken on the shape of the dancing foot. Tangible evidence of a beauty and magic doomed to disappear, it continues to exist after both dance and dancer have vanished. Call it, if you like, the death mask of the foot.

Why Taglioni?

Why is the idea of a Taglioni shoe especially potent? Popular history credits Marie Taglioni (1804 - 1884) with being the first ballerina to dance on pointe -- in creating the title role of "La Sylphide," choreographed by her father, Philippe Taglioni, in 1832. In truth, she was simply the emblem of an achievement that came about gradually, through a combination of aspiration and experiment, and that has continued to evolve to this very day. Taglioni attracts us, I think, for grander and less specific reasons. She embodied the primary aesthetic thrust of dancing (and indeed of much literature, music, and visual art) in her time. She personified the impulse of the soul that prefers the ideal to the actual, otherworldly joys to the ones within the common grasp, imagination to reality, air to earth. Her dancing is reported and represented graphically as having been ineffably light and fluid, pure and elusive. With these qualities, she symbolized at once the unattainable object of desire and, still more abstractly, the yearning for it. Rising onto her pointes, a trick once associated with circus performers, Taglioni promised transcendence.

Taglioni's power is perhaps best understood in comparing her qualities to those of her great rival -- and foil -- Fanny Elssler (1810-1884). Elssler's dancing, we're told, was forceful, dramatic, and sensuous. It was rooted in folk forms; her signature number was the Cachucha, an ebullient Spanish affair, performed with castanets. "Hers is not the aerial, virginal grace of Taglioni," Gautier wrote, "it is something much more human which appeals more sharply to the senses. Mlle. Taglioni is a Christian dancer.... Fanny Elssler is a completely pagan dancer. She reminds one of the muse Terpsichore with her tambourine and her dress slit to reveal her thigh and caught up with clasps of gold. When she fearlessly bends back, throwing her voluptuous arms behind her...." And so on.

There are dance devotees who favor Elssler over Taglioni, just as there are those who, considering the icons of early 20th-century ballet, prefer Tamara Karsavina to Anna Pavlova. (Odd business, this -- pledging one's adoration to a dancer one has never seen onstage. It's done essentially through hearsay and still images.) I myself am a Karsavina fan -- for her reputed dramatic gifts (confirmed to a degree by her photographs) and for the sensibility, at once poetic and practical, demonstrated at every turn in her memoir, "Theatre Street." But in the main, when it comes to the posthumous adoration of ballerinas, the suprahuman types, specialists in the ineffable, carry the day.

Pavlova's Shoe

I once held in my hand a shoe of Pavlova's. This was in London, at Ivy House, the ballerina's home for two decades, where, in 1974, John and Roberta Lazzarini had set up a bijou-scaled museum as a memorial to their idol. Few visitors were on the scene the day I made my pilgrimage. With me was my daughter, a School of American Ballet student of sixteen, whose interest in dead dancers, I should have realized, had not yet been kindled. Robert Lazzarini himself, friendly and generous, was present, acting as both docent and guard. He soon elicited our connection to dance from us and assumed, naturally but incorrectly, that we were worshippers at Pavlova's shrine. At one point, when my daughter and I were alone in the main room with him, he took a worn pointe shoe down from its perch and extended it to us. "Here, would you like to hold it? Go ahead." Since my daughter made no move to accept the hallowed object -- indeed, her face had assumed the impassive mask with which adolescents spurn the world's conventions -- I did, for the sake of politeness.

There it lay in my hand, wafer-light but laden with associations. There were a lot of heart-string tugging emotions I knew I should be feeling, but I wasn't. Just the opposite. Despite Lazzarini's genuine, engaging passion for Pavlova and everything associated with her, I felt the whole business was kind of creepy. The shoe reminded me of the "self-immolation in the cause of art" aura that surrounds Pavlova, which has an eerie cousinship with necrophilia. Some of this mythology -- like the lurid account of her calling for her costume as she lay on her deathbed -- accreted to Pavlova posthumously. Much of it, though, she fostered in her lifetime, with the help of astute collaborators. Remember, her very signature piece, Fokine's "Swan," is about the pathos and beauty of death. Had the proffered shoe been Karsavina's, I would have thought my palm blessed. A chacun ses gouts.

Other Shoes

A few other shoes have come my way. Among them is a pair of Patricia McBride's, autographed, with the occasion of their wearing noted as well. It was the New York City Ballet's "Coppelia," telecast January 31, 1978, in the Live from Lincoln Center series. I worked on that show, providing intermission material that included an interview with Alexandra Danilova, an unforgettable Swanilda, veteran balletomanes say, and Balanchine's collaborator in staging this production. Though I'm not much of a souvenir collector, I did have a slight acquaintance with the obliging, sweet-tempered McBride. So I let myself be seized by the madness of asking for the shoes and the signing. I was goaded, in part, by knowing that, with the video record of the performance, posterity would actually be able to see the dancing in which the shoes had been worn. One of these days, I suppose, I should hand them over to the Library for the Performing Arts. While I stall, my dance-mad granddaughter likes to look at them, touch them, and hear their story -- once again.

Returning after a dinner break to the backstage area an hour before the performance was to be shot, the director, the producer, and I were startled to see McBride standing in the corridor outside her dressing room, ravishing in full stage makeup, wrapped in the colorful Japanese kimono that served as her theater robe, grasping a gleaming pointe shoe like a blackjack and ferociously slamming it against the cinder block wall. Arrested in the act of mayhem -- commonly used to soften the rock-hard box of today's pointe shoe and thus muffle the dancer's footfalls -- McBride merely flashed her dazzling smile at us and offered an "Oh, hello" in the dulcet tones of one discovered stroking the family cat. I suspect that for a child eyeing the shoe today, the story registers not as factual report in the form of eyewitness account, but fable. It takes its place, I imagine, alongside fairy tales, folk tales, and vintage family anecdotes. It's at once real and pretend -- as all stories are (so magically and, alas, so briefly) in a child's mind. As McBride's shoe is to my granddaughter, so is Taglioni's to me.

The Cornell Box

The most resonant "relic" of Marie Taglioni is not her shoe and it is not a relic. Rather, it's a work of art -- an assemblage -- that appropriates the attributes of a relic: "Taglioni's Jewel Casket," created by Joseph Cornell in 1940. Cornell (1903-1972) was an obsessive, a visionary, and -- is this, perhaps, redundant? -- a devotee of the ballet, more specifically of ballerinas and the lore that grows up around them. Yesteryear's ballerinas -- least accessible, least compromised by reality -- were the favored recipients of his artistic homage. Of the ballerinas whom he'd actually seen dance, the only one to kindle his imagination in a sustained way was the New York City Ballet's sublimely poetic Allegra Kent. Her arrival at the School of American Ballet as a gifted, half-trained student of fourteen was greeted -- so it's said -- by a venerable instructor's rushing down the corridor exclaiming, "Taglioni has come again!" Within the category of ballerinas existing only as memories (often memories fictionalized by time), Cornell was most inspired by several of the goddesses who reigned over the Romantic era: Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi, Lucile Grahn, and Taglioni. Cornell's constructions, which are sui generis, capture -- ironically in box-like containers -- the fugitive quality of dance, its penchant for illusion, its perfume.

"Taglioni's Jewel Casket," the strongest of his ballet-centered evocations, is a small dark wooden chest with a hinged lid, which stands open (though slightly angled downward as if in a gesture of self-protection) to reveal its mysterious, compelling contents. It is lined with brown velvet. Strung across the inner side of the lid is a necklace of rhinestones. In the shallow arc formed by the necklace, recessed in the lush velours, a rectangular plate of blue glass bears this inscription:

"On a moonlight night in the winter of 1835 the carriage of Marie TAGLIONI was halted by a Russian highwayman, and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panther's skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that, to keep alive the memory of this adventure so precious to her, TAGLIONI formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of that atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape."

In the bottom of the box lie a dozen squares of dime-store glass fashioned to look like ice cubes, some of them spilling from their slots, as if they'd been jostled by a rude hand.

Gazing at this box -- leaning in close, as you must to decipher the minuscule lettering of the text -- you feel yourself submerged in the atmosphere Cornell creates: the dark blue night, with its icy temperatures; the snow sparkling as it reflects the cold white light of the moon; the diamonds twinkling like earthly stars, half-hidden as they rest on their voluptuous blanket in their portable vault. You sense the danger, the erotic charge (that panther skin is a splendid touch), the brigand's threat to the ill-concealed treasure (precious jewels, female purity), and the power of a woman's dancing to move the inevitable from its course. This is what ballet is about, Cornell suggests, and if, like many a balletomane, you're susceptible to suggestion, you'll agree.

The Missing Shoe

As I worked on this essay, I was simultaneously hunting for a photograph of the Taglioni shoe I recalled seeing -- the slipper that, having remained with me for so long as a luminous vision, prodded me to write. I wanted to verify the details of the shoe's construction; I thought my editor might use the image to illustrate my story; perhaps I secretly hoped that, even diminished by photographic reproduction, the shoe would serve me as the madeleine did Proust.

Such a photograph proved elusive. Not only that, written evidence that such a shoe still existed seemed to be absent too. Unsuccessful on my own, I enlisted the aid of appropriate authorities: librarians, museum curators, dance historians, fellow dance journalists, my editor. What began as a scattershot search turned into a more methodical one -- with a curious conclusion offering its own epiphany.

Apparently, there was no such object as an extant Taglioni shoe. There were Elssler shoes. There was a pair said to have been worn by Emma Livry (Taglioni's protegee, who died tragically at the age of 21, from burns sustained when her gauze tutu caught fire on one of the gas jets that lit the Opera's stage). There were other examples of shoes from the period made by Taglioni's cobbler, Jannssen of Paris. But I turned up no slipper that could confidently be said to have touched Taglioni's foot. My memory of having viewed such a relic -- like the memory of transcendent moments of dancing -- had, over the years, shaped actuality (lovely in itself) to its own wishful thinking (lovelier still). "Absence," Gautier wrote, "has the effect that the image of the absent one gradually becomes poeticized, her features become blurred in the memory, they conform to a pattern, coming closer and closer to the ideal that each of us carries in our mind's eye."

Oddly, but not inexplicably, the fact that Taglioni's shoe might no longer be present in the tangible world didn't seem to matter. I had been schooled by years of looking at and being moved by dancing. For me, objective reality, all very fine in its proper place, has nowhere near the persuasive power of the imagination, which, given the right sort of raw material, can fashion a compelling universe.

Coda

Just as I was finishing this essay, a serendipitous encounter with two colleagues revealed clues to the actual existence of not merely one but several slippers attributed to Taglioni. Several months of subsequent chasing and ferreting -- I became a huntress possessed -- led to shoes in Paris, London, Copenhagen, and St. Petersburg as well as one in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Some have a credible provenance; others remain wrapped in the pleasant fog of conjecture.) The Musee de l'Opera, a division of the Bibliotheque Nationale housed at the Paris Opera Ballet's venerable Garnier site, holds a pair of Taglioni shoes. One of these slippers was recently placed on display in its gallery. Neither of them, however, is the one pictured, identified as Taglioni's, in the Cyril W. Beaumont translation of Andre Levinson's life of the ballerina. That shoe was Elssler's. The Theatre Museum in London, a division of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has a black character shoe and a handful of Gordon Anthony photographs of Alicia Markova displaying a Sylphide-style slipper that remains in a private collection. In her memoir "Markova Remembers," the 20th-century ballerina with the clearest stylistic connection to Taglioni observes that this shoe fits her perfectly. The Theatre Museum in Copenhagen, charmingly housed in a 19th-century playhouse, owns one, though it has inexplicably been withdrawn from the permanent display. A similar shoe has been sighted in St. Petersburg. Last (though readers are cordially invited to extend this list), the Harvard Theatre Collection contains a white character shoe with side lacing, something a spirit might wear on an occasion calling for boots. None of these, mind you, is the slipper I believe I once saw.


The selections of Gautier's prose are taken from "Gautier on Dance," translated and edited by Ivor Guest (Dance Books, London, 1986).The translation of the lines from "Le Spectre de la rose" is by Emily Ezust.

Thank you to the many people who helped play Hunt the Slipper, among them Mindy Aloff, Erik Aschengreen, Paul Ben-Itzak, Mary Cargill, Patricia Daly, Annette Fern, Lynn Garafola, Leslie Getz, Robert Greskovic, Ivor Guest, Maina Gielgud, Allegra Kent, David Leonard, Alastair Macaulay, Dame Alicia Markova, Patricia McBride, Monica Moseley, Barbara Newman, Ida Poulsen, Pierre Vidal, Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, and Sarah Woodcock.

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