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Taglioni’s Shoe: Memory & Memorabilia

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.” — Théophile 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. Dance Insider, Vignettes 04/23/03

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