Author: Maya Motamedi
Type: Undergraduate coursework, University of Birmingham, UK.
Availability: in full, below.
Page reference: Motamedi, M. (2006) Ballet shoes. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/balletshoes.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)
I reach for my shoes. I slip them on. Right. Then left. I tie the ribbons – inner first, then the outer, criss-crossed, then round twice, fastened and knotted on the side, tucked under the double layer I have created. Ribbons? Yes. These are no ordinary shoes. These are pink satin, delicate yet durable, gentle yet fierce, dynamic, euphoric, beautiful and afflictive all in one glance.
The ribbons of these paradoxical shoes now run up my ankles like vines, binding us together. Suddenly, I cannot tell where I end and they begin. I am a cyborg.1 They have encased, engulfed my feet; formed a second skin like an extension of the flesh tensed to brave the inevitable. Then we begin. I am weightless, as light as the softest feather floating to the ground. These shoes skim, glide, caress and whisper to the floor. I am dancing on the very edge, the very end of my physical existence. I am dancing on my toes. I balance on oval platforms, measuring just an inch across. I defy physical law. Are humans meant for this? This is no natural capability.2 The outlines of the room soften like a watercolour masterpiece. The energy, the life bleeds into my shoes and feet like osmosis. Suspended in time, with a reckless freedom, all thought utterly and defiantly abandoned. The world is at my feet. Is this more literal than I think? I take them off, these odd shoes; my feet tender, bruised and tired – a lasting impression. I turn them over. ‘Made in Russia’.
More specifically, made in Moscow, in Grishko’s ‘Factory One’ – the Pointe Shoe Factory.3 Completely hand made, from start to finish. Materials sourced from all over Russia. Leather. Satin. Cotton. Paper. Burlap. Environmentally friendly paste – with a dextrin-four base. Apparently, this is why they mould so well to the shape of my feet. Tools. Machinery. “Old traditions and modern technological progress as well as 100% ecological materials” (Grishko nda, np).
Anna Pavlova once said that hand made shoes kept a piece of the master’s soul (Grishko ndb), a symbiotic relationship between Ballerina and Maker. The essence, therefore, of a Grishko craftsman or woman is within my shoes. The ‘M’ imprinted on the sole denotes the individual who made it, known as the “makers mark”.4 It is their knowledge, their craft, their mathematical precision that allows me to dance as I do.
Then I am also inevitably collected to Nicolai Grishko, founder of Grishko Ltd, and to his wife Tamara, a dancer who could never find a comfortable pair of shoes. The physicists. The Scientific Research Institute of Starch Materials. The Central Research Institute of Leather and Shoe Industry. The medical institutes of Russia. All collaborate with the company in the development of their Pointe shoes (Grishko ndb).
In the midst of Gorbachev’s business reforms, the perestroika, it was Tamara Grishko who encouraged her husband to venture into the production of Pointe shoes in 1989 (International Dance Supplies / Grishko nd). Although the success of these economic reforms is often contested, Grishko is one of the most “renowned makers of ballet products” (Grishko ndb) and they are sold in more than 70 countries worldwide. Thus, in purchasing this brand of shoe I contribute to Russia’s increasingly dynamic market economy. Consequently this is why such things matter. We are not isolated entities, but a world-system, components.
The chain of interconnectivity does not end in Russia. There’s International Dance Supplies – the company that distributes Grishko in the UK. Dance and Leisure Wear, Drayton Road, Kings Heath, Birmingham. The sales assistant who fitted my shoes. Thousands of people, thousands of miles, like the layers of paper and glue within them, compressed and wedged into two small shoes.
1 “When Donna Haraway says she’s a cyborg, she’s not claiming to be different or special. For Haraway, the realities of modern life happen to include a relationships between people and technology so intimate that it’s no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin” (Kunzru 1997, p.2). Subsequently, our relationship and dependence with the material makes us cyborgs. Ballet is a part of my own ‘modern life’ in which I have a close relationship with the technology of the Pointe shoe. Without this technology, the activity undertaken is not possible. There is a distinct and notable fusion of the Pointe shoe with the dancer. Whilst Haraway claims that cyborgs have been among us for almost 50 years, these shoes have existed in excess of 200 years. The ballerina has long been a cyborg with improved “human capability” (ibid.).
2 Kunzru (1997) discussed Haraway’s reluctance in connecting Mother Earth and all that is natural. Rather, she is a product of both science and technology. There is nothing natural about the Pointe shoe or the art of ballet. While the latter requires difficult movement, the shoe itself defies natural laws. As a commodity, it has its uses (Cook et al. 2002). There is no other way of achieving this kind of dance. Haraway says being a cyborg is “about athletic shoes”, a category to which Pointe shoes undoubtedly belong. Winning the Olympics, she says (in Kunzru 1997, np), is not just about the speed at which you run, but a combination of “diet, training practices, clothing, equipment, visualization”. As is dance.
3 See photographs of Grishko’s Pointe shoe production at www.grishko.ru/enfactory1/text_1118.htm (last accessed 13 January 2006).
4“These are hugely important relationships … all around the world. And we need one another. Throughout our whole lives. To help us become, and to be, who we are … with our different lifestyles, identities, bodies” (Cook et al 2002, p.3). The craftspeople in the Grishko workshops need dancers to wear their shoes so that money can be exchanged. Dancers, professional or amateur require their skills, their products to enable this activity. Both identities are therefore constructed through this relationship.
Cook et al, I. (2002) Commodities: the DNA of capitalism. exchange-values.org (http://followthethings.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/commodities-dna.pdf last accessed 18 January 2011)
Grishko (nda) Pointe Shoe Factory. grishko.ru (www.grishko.ru/enfactory1/text_1118.htm last accessed 18 January 2011)
Grishko (nd b) About Grishko Company. grishko.ru (www.grishko.ru/enhistory/text_242.htm last accessed 18 January 2011
International Dance Supplies/Grishko (nd) History of Grishko. grishko.ru (www.grishko.co.uk/Grishko_UK/About_us.html last accessed 18 January 2011)
Kunzru, H. (1997) You are cyborg: for Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated. Wired February (www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway_pr.html last accessed 18 January 2011)
Cook, I., Williams, A. & Motamedi, M. (2006). Stuff Geography. Primary Geographer (Autumn), p.38-39 (www.geographyteachingtoday.org.uk/images/text/CPDGR_PGCook.pdf last accessed 24 June 2011)
Posted by Ian Cook (last updated June 2011). Page created as coursework for the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Birmingham University. Reproduced with permission of the author.