Shoes Kumiko Kiuchi


On 19 November 2022, I was in the main hall of Saitama Arts Foundation, watching a dance performance called May B (first performed in 1981) directed by the French dancer and choreographer Maguy Marin. There was one thing in the performance that grabbed my attention, though slipped my mind: the dancer’s ballet shoes.

The shoes intrigued me because they seemed to change their status from the dancers’ outfits to independent objects. In a scene during the first half of the performance, the dancers were absorbed in dancing to the music of the carnival, each at their own pace. Then, the music suddenly receded and the dancers began to take off their ballet shoes one after another, as if this gesture was taken for granted. Before we knew how it happened, the shoes were already lined up in a row on the right side of the stage (audience’s right). The lights dimmed and the dancers tilted their heads to one side or the other and placed their hands on their cheeks. This gesture along with silence surely implied sleep. However, the silence did not last long. The lights were back and the dancers picked up their paces, this time they danced with more vigor, and in pairs. The shoes were left untouched on stage for a while. My eyes were glued on the them for I can’t say how long. By the time I became aware of my own gaze, it was no longer on the shoes but on the dancers, and the shoes were gone.

There were several reasons why I was curious about the shoes. Firstly, the shoes were ballet shoes. Young Marin was a dancer in Maurice Béjart’s ballet company. In standard ballet and dance, it is customary to dance with grace and beauty and to the rhythm of the music. Marin did not question this to begin with. However, reading Beckett’s plays, she realised that her dance unwittingly excludes old age and physical disability. She felt dance was “supposed to be an expression of all ages, bodies and ethnicities/peoples”. In May B, Marin created inclusive dance, staging the characters with different types of disabilities based on characters in Beckett’s plays. That these characters take off their cramped ballet shoes seemed to me to be a symbolic declaration of a break from the standard types of dance.

At the same time, my mind had wondered elsewhere, remembering my experience of taking off shoes in a different cultural context. Born and raised in Japan, I take it for granted to take off my shoes at the entrance to a house. But some places in Europe, this is not the case. Marin is a French artist based in France. For her, taking off shoes may mean something different. When I was staying in France for a month, I always took my shoes off at the door of my room in the student dormitory, as if to retain my Japanese custom. However, the French students I was acquainted with in the same dormitory entered my room with their shoes on. I felt that the border between the outside and the inside was erased by their footsteps. When I asked them when they took their shoes off, they told me it was only before getting into bed.

I had a similar experience in the U.K. where I studied for six years. In the homes I was invited to, I was told to keep my shoes on. In some household, the floor was so clean that I nevertheless asked at the entrance if I could take off my shoes. They would laugh and say, “Japanese people keep things clean. I like that. But please keep your shoes on”. (Nowadays, even in the UK, more and more people like taking off their shoes and putting on slippers at the door.)

Even so, certain habit sticks to your feeling more than to reasons. There was a place where I could not help taking off my shoes in their house, a place called bathroom, where the toilet and the bathtub are often located in the same space. I would quietly take off my shoes, put them inside the door and locked it so that no one would see them. In fact, it was probably mushroom that changed my attitude. In one bathroom, I found in the bathtub shiny white mushrooms growing peacefully in the styrofoam box bedded with coarse brown soil, almost fresh as if just taken in from the outside. I had to admit that the sense of outside and inside was no more than a cultural convention.

Shoes had defined the border between inside and outside and this border was internalized almost as a discipline. Yet, it did not take much time when I started walking around with my shoes on. For a while, after returning to Japan, I found it troublesome to take my shoes off at the door. On leaving the room, the door locked, and a few steps away, I would notice that I had forgotten something and returned to the room to find it. When I opened the door, I would somehow pause for a moment to fight against the temptation just to walk in with my shoes on. What bliss that would be. Then, I would remember what someone in Japan once told me: only a deceased person would wear shoes inside the house. I was still alive. That is how I would convince myself. It was not a rational explanation, but almost a mantra. The embodied Japanese rules of inside and outside do not directly apply to Marin’s play, but the fact that shoes are somehow involved in the demarcation of the outside and inside is common to all cultures.

There is one more thing that occurred to me while I was watching the performance. The dancers who started dancing without shoes may be in a dream, because in France, it is when you get out of bed that you put your shoes on. If that is the case, we can assume that the dancers can still be asleep. As far as I can remember, there was no scene where the dancers put their shoes back on. Many of the performance brochures contain photographs of the dancers barefoot. Of course, this is just my interpretation, but if the dancers were off shoes for the rest of the stage, we could see that when they took them off, real time was over and the rest of the performance was dream time.

This interpretation is not just a whim, but it is founded by those details in Beckett’s plays that were similar and therefore likely to have influenced Marin’s production. The sequence of actions of taking off shoes and going to bed may be a reference to Beckett’s mime, Act Without Words II. In this piece, the character performs the daily ritual twice, from waking to going to bed. In the first round, the character looks happy, the second time he is slow and grumpy. In both rounds, the character puts on the shoes before going out, and takes off his shoes before going to bed. and gets on the floor before bedtime. In the repetition of the routine, the inseparable relationship between a thing and an action is visualised and the things begin to announce their own presence.

Nevertheless, there is something in the dancers’ performance without shoes that did not allow for the unrealistic description of dream time. For me, their physicality, the very small tremor of an unconscious movement, was so palpable. It reminded me of the last sign of life I tried so hard to find in the person who had just passed away, my father. Even after one loses one’s shoes, as one could no longer walk, one would continue to tremble somewhere as long as one lived. The tremors on the dancers’ bodies were what conquered my gaze in the end.

I did not know that the dead could not wear normal shoes when they were cremated. Neither rubber-soled shoes nor leather shoes can be worn because they could melt, explode and break the oven. The only footwear allowed were of cloth.

It may seem obvious, but wearing shoes is a sign of walking on one’s own feet and continuing life. Shōhei Ōoka’s autobiographical short story Shoe Story, for example, is highly suggestive in this respect. During the Pacific War, the protagonist is trying to steal a pair of new sharkskin shoes of a dying soldier in the war zone. In fact, they are as water-permeable as fish skin and only keep his feet wet and cold. Nevertheless, the protagonist is obsessed with the pair, waits for the soldier to draw his last breath and snatch them.

On the other hand, during this same period, there was someone who, as a child, resisted her sharkskin shoes: the writer Atsuko Suga. Though her aunt kindly got hold of the pair for her, in the rain, the glue melted and they became almost shapeless. “A shark came across water and melted” was her joke which only prompted her aunt’s sad face.

Her novel “The Shoes of Yusnaar” begins as follows:

As long as I have shoes that fit my feet properly, I should be able to walk anywhere. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I kept thinking this, and I think I've lived my whole life with the misfortune of not having found the perfect shoes. The reason I haven’t been to all the places I should go, all the places I should go, all the places I’ve given up going, is because I didn’t have the right shoes for my feet.

I don’t know why. It was unfair and irrational. On reading this passage, I found myself arguing against her. Is there such a thing as a perfect pair of shoes? If you like the design, it doesn’t fit your feet, and shoes that fit your feet compromise on design. Such things happen more often. I even feel such “imperfection” is the condition of shoes. And for Suga, continuing to search for shoes seems to me to have been synonymous with continuing to write. If there is a grain of truth in this, I am sorry for Suga, but her readers should be pleased that she did not have perfect shoes.

In any case, as soon as you start walking, the shoes lose their perfection, while every step that wears out the shoes, get them closer to their perfection. The soles rubbed against the ground loses its original shape. At the same time, every step makes our feet familiar to the shoes and the trace of steps appears as wear on the soles in a variety of ways. These traces are unique to the person who walked in them. Never perfect in anyway. Even when the owner is gone, the shoes as an object survives their life, those who wore them, through the unique traces through which we may come into contact with the life of the past that is now gone. They are unique and cannot be replicated and keep us connected to the past and the dead as something material.

Will this remain so in the future? How will we deal with shoes in the digital age? The way we interact with shoes is the key to moving our already embodied norms: the borders between inside and outside.