Houston Ballet’s Steven Woodgate
by Marene Gustin • photo by Drew Donovan
Houston Ballet goes through thousands of pointe shoes every year at a tremendous cost. Those paste and satin pink shoes with a reinforced box that allow ballerinas to rise up on the very tip of their toes and spin around are a costly but necessary expense. And for the current production of artistic director Stanton Welch’s Cinderella, there are 60 pairs of these shoes that are a lot larger than normal.
That’s because there are 10 male dancers (who each get six pairs) learning the roles of the ugly stepsisters in the ballet—roles that are en travesti, danced by members of the opposite sex.
“There really aren’t many ballets where men wear pointe shoes,” says ballet master Steven Woodgate. “There’s Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a male dancer on pointe, and some of the Cinderella versions have the ugly stepsisters on pointe, but not all of the versions do.”
Woodgate came to Houston Ballet in January of 2004 after an extensive career at the Australian Ballet where Welch created the stepsister role of Florinda for him in 1997.
“I’ve been dancing since I was five years old,” he says. “But I’d never been in pointe shoes. I had a pair of Blochs specially made for me.” Bloch is a dancewear company that’s been making ballet shoes since 1932.
“The girls showed us how to prepare our shoes and prep our feet,” Woodgate recalls. “It took about a half-hour to get my feet ready and my shoes on. Since men don’t have the experience with these shoes, they tend to use a lot more padding, Band-Aids, and Second Skin. I used so much padding the first time, I could barely squeeze my feet into the shoes!”
While some little boys may wear tutus and dream of being ballerinas, few professional male dancers—gay or straight—have the opportunity to dance en pointe outside of the parody troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (lovingly known as The Trocks), an all-male company that presents hilarious takes on classic ballet en travesti.
And there’s a reason for that.
“Pointe shoes were created for women,” Woodgate says. Even with custom-made larger sizes, the construction of the shoe is still the same. Men tend to break down their shoes faster because they are heavier and their feet sweat more. Preparing for Cinderella, the men dancing the roles of the stepsisters typically have only four to six weeks of classes and rehearsals en pointe, compared to a decade or more that the women have been working with pointe shoes.
“The first time I had a pointe class, the men couldn’t stop laughing!” Woodgate says. “Men with thick, muscular legs look funny in pointe shoes—that’s the point. That’s why Stanton wanted the stepsisters to do it.
“But after the first couple of classes, it’s not so funny. Your feet hurt, you have blisters, and you understand all the things the girls have been putting up with for years.”
When constantly dancing in pointe shoes, women often experience bunions, cracked toenails, bleeding feet, and more. But the most serious problem Woodgate had was the last time he danced Florinda and pulled a calf muscle. “You really have to build up your calves and stretch them before doing this,” he says.
Because the shoes have to be so tight to support the foot and lift the dancer off the floor, his worst fear was having the heels slip off while dancing. But the female dancers taught him to tie the ankle elastics close together on the back of the shoe. Volumes have been written about how to prep pointe shoes, which come hard as rocks, with no left or right, and have to be broken in, elastics and ribbons sewn on, and often darned and scraped before wearing.
Woodgate has retired from the role (he can be seen as the king in the current Houston Ballet production wearing nice flat patent-leather shoes), but as ballet master he taught the current ugly stepsisters the toe task.
“We start with a very basic pointe class, like a children’s class,” he explains. “But it accelerates pretty quickly. They have to be able to dance in their shoes for an hour and a half in the performance.” But going into the show, the guys may be in pointe shoes for six hours a day of classes and rehearsals. And even though they are supposed to look funny, they still have to be able to pull off the choreography that includes difficult pique turns and arabesques. But Woodgate says the men are fearless, probably because they don’t know how hard it is.
“They’ll attack the turns and try anything,” he says. “And in the ballet they’re on pointe, wearing a dress, a wig, a hat. And as Florinda, I had a fat suit as well.” Not a role for the weak at heart.
Woodgate’s secret for learning the craft so fast? He would wear his shoes at home and bourrée around his kitchen on the tips of his toes.
All of the dancers, including the men, select their own shoemakers and styles. For the guys, it’s Bloch Ultraflex, Freed Classic, Studio, SBTDV, Capezio Glisse (the most popular), and Gaynor Minden. Minden is a relatively new pointe shoemaker that uses elastomerics for its shanks and boxes instead of the traditional paste and cardboard construction—which some purists think is cheating.
“I wore Gaynor Mindens the last time I danced the role,” Woodgate says. “But give me a break—I was 40 then.”
Houston Ballet’s Cinderella runs through March 4 at the Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater. For more information, visit houstonballet.org.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.