By Troy Schumacher, as told to Claudia La Rocco
When I see these photos, especially the one of the foot missing a toenail—it makes me think how we as dancers are so used to seeing things like this. It just is such a very everyday thing to see, the way that the women’s feet have morphed into these shoes, and how their feet have almost, I don’t know the right word … just completely altered. A lot of the women, they definitely feel a little bit self-conscious about this. But for me it’s a mark: only a ballet dancer’s feet look like this.
This dancer, the nail on her big toe had just fallen off. This must have been on a Saturday afternoon before two performances, and she told me: I just have to tape it up and it will be fine. I know, as a male dancer, having anything wrong with my toe nail is the most excruciating thing, so I can only imagine what these women go through …
And I’m also struck by the effort to paint the toenail, as though that will almost hide it a little bit, or make her feel a little beautiful, even though her foot looks quite … interesting…
That picture is taken before the foot is in a pointe shoe. The other picture is taken obviously after being in a pointe shoe for the day. I don’t think it’s the same dancer, but it’s a similar situation. These marks are pretty similar on all of the women, especially over the knuckles of the toes, these big mounds of skin that develop. Just incredible. And they all still wear their wedges outside in the springtime.
In many ways the feet most exemplify the small little changes that happen to your body as you dance every day, all day long. There’s a lot of things you can’t take a picture of: having to pop your hip every morning or else walking hurt, or just the way your body builds up these little tiny defenses against this absolutely unnatural thing to do… But you can take a picture of a foot. You can take a picture of a foot.
These markings really stay there. There’s a huge swelling factor when we are in the season. Some days you’re there at 10 o’clock in the morning and leave at 10:45 or 11 at night. A lot of the women, they can’t go get pedicures, because they need all of these little nubbins to really survive in their shoes. It really becomes a part of them. I think when a toenail like this falls off…these things happen, but it just seems almost like a special occasion.
The women in New York City Ballet are in pointe shoes all day long, and they go through multiple pairs. I am fascinated with the whole concept of the pointe shoe. How flimsy the construction is, and how beautiful they look—a brand new point shoe is a beautiful thing—and all of these terrible things the women have to do to these shoes to get them on. Sometimes a ballet dancer in the company, she’ll put on her shoe, and it will be done at the end of class. And sometimes it will last a few days. But often they will go through at least one a day, sometimes two or three.
We men build up a different musculature than the women do. It gets to a point where some of the women would much rather be dancing in a toe shoe than a ballet slipper. It just puts a different stress on your foot, more so the demi pointe. I think every man has had his fair share of ingrown toenails and infected corns and that sort of thing, and all of us on the top of our first metatarsal have these callous scabs that we constantly rip open. But what the women put themselves through with their feet, there is really just no comparison. Certainly no visual comparison.
There’s definitely a huge amount of pain that goes into ballet dancing. It’s such an art form, you have to be so emotionally invested for it to work. You’re constantly dealing with something, whether it’s really small (maybe you have a splinter in your hand and you have to partner that day) or there’s something wrong with your knee that no doctor can figure out or your rib’s out and it hurts to breathe. Every dancer has these moments when literally everything hurts. You don’t know how you’re going to do it. Then you get on stage .. the dancers call it dance therapy, this interesting thing that occurs, you don’t feel it could do you any good to go out there and dance, and it can be hard, but then there are these moments when you go out and perform and when you get home you feel physically so much better. Obviously the opposite occurs as well (laughs). I forget who coined that term, but we all talk about it. There’s physical therapy, and then dance therapy. But it’s really only performing that does it. It baffles all of us. It’s obviously medically the most counter-intuitive thing to go and do. People talk about the here and now you have to be in when you perform, and that must have something to do with it.
For me taking photographs started as a conversation with the three composers I have been working with at Satellite. When we first collaborated, they had never seen a ballet before. And they were just amazed at the difference between a performing situation, and when the dancers get offstage. It’s a completely different world. You can be smiling one minute, and the next minute you’re collapsing into the wings, screaming in pain or you can’t feel your feet or something is spasming. They thought that was the most interesting thing about ballet, this façade that dancers put up. In many ways that’s one of the great things about ballet: you see these people absolutely killing themselves on stage and you have no idea, because it just looks so easy. But for people of the younger generation, that’s maybe not so appealing, the making it look so easy. The image that our violinist gave was the guitar solo: you go to a concert and people just go crazy for these guitar solos, and the guitarists actually try to make it look harder than it is. And we do the complete opposite thing. So, for me, the photography is part of just trying to figure out very subtle ways to share that as respectfully as I can.
And the physical toll that ballet takes on our bodies, these markings—these are the things dancers are generally numb to looking at. The hiding of this is so ingrained into our art behavior. It’s almost a part of the training that occurs.
Finding these little moments and seeing how they affect me … I feel I’m in a really privileged position to be able to look at these and, I hope, to have my colleagues become a little more comfortable being real. I don’t walk around with a camera all day in people’s faces, but I really want to hide people’s pain a little bit less, in my choreography as well, and try to make these dancers a little bit more human, even though ballet makes you able to hold yourself in ways that are almost super human…it’s a very interesting version of human life.
Troy Schumacher is a member of New York City Ballet, and Director of the Satellite Ballet and Collective, a collaborative, multi-discipline company. An Atlanta native, he began his dance training with tap, before discovering ballet, and pursuing a career as a ballet dancer. After training at both the School of American Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, Schumacher joined New York City Ballet in 2004. At NYCB Schumacher has performed principal roles in several ballets, including Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Stars and Stripes as well as Jerome Robbins’ Interplay. His choreography forms an essential relationship with music and multimedia space: he selects highly individual dancers with inherent, unique movement qualities and creates dancer specific movement to advance the language of modern classical dance.
Photos by Troy Schumacher