If the shoe fits, the dance is better

At New York City Ballet, footwear is almost as important as feet

THE NEW YORK TIMESJanuary 3, 2014 

Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, slams her shoes against the wall to soften them up before a performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at the David H. Koch Theater in New York.

ANDREA MOHIN — New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — As the sets were silently put in place for a recent performance of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” the evening’s Sugar Plum Fairy, the petite and graceful Tiler Peck, was behind the stage making a few last-minute adjustments to her toe shoes.

“I just hate, more than anything, to hear ballerinas’ shoes,” the soft-spoken Peck said. “I think it takes away a little bit of the magic.”

Then she began a nightly ritual of mercilessly whacking each of her pink satin shoes against a cinder-block wall at the David H. Koch Theater. “So I try my best to be as quiet as possible,” she continued, slightly out of breath from the incessant shoe battery, as its ringing BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! echoed throughout the backstage area. “This really does help.”

During the course of her relatively quiet performance that evening as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Peck would wear out two pairs of shoes — not unusual at New York City Ballet, whose dancers regularly go through 10 or 12 pairs a week. The bill can add up: Those shoes cost nearly $100 a pair in stores. City Ballet buys 8,500 pairs a year, and has a $650,000 annual shoe budget.

Things work differently in smaller regional ballet companies, such as Ballet Idaho, where the shoe budget is $25,000 each year. Principal dancers receive 20 pairs each season, company dancers get 18, and apprentices get 10. They wear those shoes much longer, for rehearsals and performances.

Since many ballerinas consider their shoes as almost extensions of their feet — vital pieces of equipment to help create the illusion that human beings were meant to dance on tiptoe — an entire unusual shoe culture crops up at dance companies.

The nerve center of City Ballet’s shoe operation is a room in the basement of the Koch Theater, where rows upon rows of gray metal shelves are stuffed with hundreds of new shoes still in their plastic bags. It is the domain of Dara Faust, the company’s ballet shoe supervisor, who helps dancers find the right pair for their feet.

Almost all City Ballet shoes come from Freed of London, a large ballet shoe company. “They are custom made, handmade, and each dancer chooses a maker, the person who actually makes the box of the shoe,” Faust said. “They all feel a little different — they might work pretty much the same, but they all feel different on the inside.”

Dancers not only choose their size and width, but also the dimensions of each part of their shoes. And they become very attached to their shoemakers — whom they know only by the markings stamped onto the leather soles. Some go by letters; others use symbols, including a bell, a Maltese cross and a crown.

“A few years ago, when the company went to London, some of them were able to go to the factory and meet their maker,” Faust said with a laugh.

Even handmade shoes are further customized by each dancer. Some, like Peck, whack them against walls; others bend them back and forth;, still others crush them in doors. The dancers sew on their own ribbons and elastics.

Alexa Maxwell, 19, who just got her contract to join the corps de ballet at the end of November, recently demonstrated her routine: how she bends her shoes just so, removes the tack in the shoe (“I don’t need that in there — and sometimes it comes out on its own, loose in your shoe, stabbing you”), and pops out part of the insole, so she can trim the card-like centerpiece with a pair of scissors.

“I feel like if I can just cut a little bit of that, I can point my foot better, and it just forms to my arch a little bit better,” she explained.

Like a number of other dancers, she squeezes some glue into the inside of the hard toe — the glue of choice at City Ballet is a strong, thin adhesive called Satellite City Hot Stuff that is usually used on hairline cracks in furniture. “I just put it in the tip,” Maxwell said. “Just doing that will make your shoes last a bit longer.”

To sew the ribbons onto their shoes, some dancers use an alternative to thread: dental floss.

For roles requiring footwear that is not pink or white, Tim Foster sprays and dyes City Ballet’s shoes in the “Shoe Spray and Fabulon Room” on the top floor of the theater.

Foster works at a table set inside a sort of giant metal hood, in front of a floor-to-ceiling exhaust fan that vents away the fumes of the sprays and dyes he uses. When the fan is on, he wears the kind of plastic soundproof earmuffs worn by workers on airport tarmacs who are trying to preserve their hearing.

“I’ve got a book that has recipes for every color you can imagine, and you just mix the dye colors and apply it on the shoes, kind of in a quick fashion, so it dries evenly,” said Foster, who used to dance on the stage downstairs in New York City Opera productions and who later joined the wardrobe department after he stopped performing.

He recently demonstrated how daubing a little leather dye on some pink satin toe shoes makes them a bright, shimmering yellow — perfect for Tea in “The Nutcracker.” “It just comes out beautifully,” he said.

City Ballet apprentices wear stock shoes. Once they join the company they get to choose customized shoes. Maxwell is beginning the process of finding the right size, fit and maker for her feet. As with anything else, there are favorites.

“My favorite maker is ‘A,’ ” she said the other day in the shoe room. “They’re pretty square. I like the way that the box fits on my foot, and I feel like they don’t get soft quite as fast as some other shoes, and they don’t push me too far over or back. But ‘A’ is a bit desired.”

Faust smiled: “ ‘A’ has a very long wait, and is restricted at the moment. No new dancers.”

Maxwell ran through the other makers she likes, recognizing how subjective it can be.

“One maker that I absolutely hate, my best friend absolutely loves,” she said. “It just all depends on the shape of your foot.”

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