Interview

Meet the Shoe Master

Possibly the most important aspect of any dancer’s apparel is their shoes. Shoe Master Michael Clifford is the man who makes it all happen and, as he explains, it’s not as straightforward as you might expect.

Michael Clifford, Shoe Master. Credit: photo: Lee Armstrong.

'I joined the Company in 1987 when it was based in Sadler's Wells.. I have to confess that I didn’t know an awful lot about ballet, since my background was in theatre and opera. I started working in men’s wardrobe and moved with the Company to Birmingham in 1990. It was during the opening season that I first started working on shoes. The Sleeping Beauty was my first show and I remember it very clearly.

Just as with great athletes, dancers’ shoes are absolutely crucial to their performance. Currently three of our girls take shoes from stock but the rest of the dancers require bespoke footwear. Pointe shoes have two structural features that enable a ballerina to dance on her toes: a box within the front end of the shoe that supports the dancer’s toes and a shank, which is a piece of rigid material that serves to stiffen the sole so as to provide support for the arch of the en pointe foot.

The sole is usually constructed from a single piece of leather so that a dancer can stay on her feet, and the shoes are usually covered in satin. It’s quite an artisan business and every dancer has unique feet. A full company of 60 dancers keeps me very busy!

It’s down to me to liaise with dancers to find out what they need and then feed that information to our suppliers. I need to ensure that we have a full stock and replacements are on hand quickly.

Just as with great athletes, dancers’ shoes are absolutely crucial to their performance.

Michael Clifford, Shoe Master

I also work closely with the wardrobe department, and with David Bintley and the designers on productions. It can be challenging to collaborate with designers who have little experience of dance. We have to make sure that the shoes work on a practical level so that dancers can move freely without risk of injury, as well as fitting the designer’s vision for the ballet; it’s about combining a pragmatic approach with the aesthetics and overall tone of the piece.

The type of shoe a dancer requires can depend on the role, recent injury and even, in some cases, pregnancy, but a ballerina’s reliance on shoes never changes. We need them to ensure that the dancers can move with all the grace and artistry that our audiences have come to expect, and I am delighted that the Company has raised £25,000 over the last year for pointe shoes. I hope that our donors will continue to support the Pointe Shoe Appeal on an annual basis, as it really does make a big difference."

You can support the purchase of performance footwear to Birmingham Royal Ballet's dancers – click here to find out about our Pointe Shoe Appeal.