The Royal Opera House is home to some of the most breathtaking ballets, their world class dancers grace the opulent stage and magnificent operas bellow out of the building, enveloping the entire place in powerful song. It’s a place that exudes creativity from every corner. But away from the bright lights of the stage, hidden along a narrow corridor, is a tiny room where Jane Latimer works away with her assistant Maire Graham. Jane is Head of Ballet Shoes at the Royal Opera house, and today MSL are on their way to meet the lady herself.
As we make our way along the tight corridor, I try to envision a room that houses the entire collection of ballet shoes that are needed to kit out the many dancers in the company. I envision rows of Pointe shoes and ribbons everywhere, tape measures and needle and thread, ready to stitch pink blushing ribbons of satin to each perfect slipper. MSL have had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people and seeing some truly amazing things during our time spent behind the scenes of the ROH, but for me, this is by far my favourite and most awaited moment. I am infatuated by the beauty of the Pointe shoe.
We approach a door that looks much like a wall of fame, decorated in a chaotic scrapbook manner, with Pointe shoes, snap shots of previous performances and jovial candid photographs. I feel a sense of instant joy upon approach, who ever is waiting behind that door to greet us must truly love the ballet and the people she works with. Images of the dancers take pride of place on that door, like a proud parent displaying to the world the beauty of her children. And it occurs to me in that moment, that Jane must not only be the Head of Ballet Shoes, but also the very heart of them.
But that’s enough speculation, as it’s time to meet Jane for myself. The door swings open gently and Jane comes forward to greet us. I expected to see a lot of shoes, but this is way beyond anything I could have ever imagined. The room is floor to ceiling with Pointe shoes, all neatly stored in cubby-holes that run the length of the room. Piles spill out onto the floor, leaving little space to manoeuvre. It is literally a case of tip toeing intricately between the heaps of satin shoes, (come to think of it, you may very well need a pair of Pointe shoes and some good dance training just to make it from one end of the workroom to the other.) Every inch of space is taken up with ballet shoes and at the centre of the organised chaos sits Jane.
We begin our interview right way as Jane is swamped with work and in the midst of a very stressful time; Alice in Wonderland opens to audiences this weekend and Jane is in the process of adorning 350 swarovski crystals, to 12 pairs of glossy midnight blue Pointe shoes for the role of the caterpillar. The caterpillar, she jokes, graces the stage for all of five minutes, but as Jane hands me the slipper and the light catches each crystal and glistening beams dance on its surface, I have to say, it was worth it! They are stunningly beautiful and the intricate detailing shows true talent and craftsmanship. A laborious task perhaps, but what a spectacular result.
Alice in Wonderland may well be one of the busiest times for Jane, but it is also a highlight of her career so far, “we have been able to start from scratch with all the footwear which was of course such a challenge, but also great.” Although, it is fair to say Jane is definitely used to being busy. With 100 dancers that need to be kept in shoes constantly, her job is not easy feat, pardon the pun. Keeping a girl in Pointe shoe is a full time job, Jane needs to ensure she has an endless supply in order to meet each girls needs. She tells us how each shoe is “handmade in a factory and made to measure” we learn how every girl is assigned a show maker, whose stamp is present on the sole of each shoe; this is to ensure the maker and dancer know each others work and needs inside out.
The process is a lengthy one, each shoe takes a about a month to make, it’s the shoes most important feature, the bloch, that takes the most time; made from card, flour and water, it is essential the bloch is left to dry out correctly before they reach the dancer. The Royal Opera House goes to great lengths to make sure the dancers have the shoes they need and it’s Jane’s job to see this happens, “it’s a constant quest for the prefect shoe, the perfect fit.” Girls spend a lifetime in search of a shoe that they love, and when they find it they savour and treasure them, reserving such shoes for their most important roles. Jane talks of how Leanne Benjamin, a ballerina at the ROH, has two favourite pairs that she keeps aside for her best role.
But a shoe that undergoes such strain cannot last forever. It’s an undeniable fact that the perfect shoe will at some point, find itself redundant, having seen better days. I’m intrigued as to what happens to such shoes, is there a pile of sad broken down Pointe shoes, hidden away within the walls of the ROH? Jane’s smile reveals my assumption to be true, “ yes girls will throw old shoes in to big bin and then these will be used for parts or artists tend to request them and use them as works of art”, how beautifully poetic, that this shoes creative life lives on and precedes it wearer, its beauty ever acknowledge, transformed to its former glory – it would seem my obsession with the Pointe shoe is shared.
Just as we are wrapping up our brief, yet incredibly insightful, talk and gathering ourselves to leave Jane to her crystals, a graceful delicate dancer peers around the door; she has come to collect her news shoes. Her tiny frame is as straight as an arrow, as she waits for Jane to dig out a bag of newly made Pointe shoes. “Thank you Jane” she gushes, “your welcome darling” Jane replies, “how are you getting on with the last pair?” It’s clear to me now that Jane takes this business seriously and is so aware of the importance these shoes have for dancers.
After six years with the Royal Opera House Jane has supplied thousands upon thousand of Pointe shoes, has dealt with nail biting deadlines and formed bonds with the dancers she fits. At times the job of course can be very stressful for Jane, “we are open all hours and never have a quiet period, but I love it. You have to love it to do this” she explains. For her it is a labour of love and she wouldn’t have it any other way. And with that I am convinced I was right about her all along, Jane Latimer is most definitely not the head, but the heart of the Ballet Shoe Department.
Pink or White?
Tutus or Ballet skirts?
Pointe shoes or Ballet slipper?
Modern or Traditional ballets?
Both. I just couldn’t choose, I love both.
Ballet bun or Floating locks?
Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty
Black Swan or Billy Elliott
Billy Elliott, I have never seen Black Swan
Talent or Dedication
Talent! It doesn’t matter how much work you put in if the talent isn’t there to begin with.
Darcey Bussell or Margot Fonteyn?
Pirouette or Arabesque