Shoe Magic

The Shoemaster, a wiry man with a shaved head, white T-shirt, and black leather loafers, holds what looks like the innards of a broken slipper. It's weeks before the shoe season begins in earnest, and he's patiently explaining, in a thick Spanish accent, how to counter some of his biggest enemies.

"Corns?" he says, pointing to what looks like a toe guard. "The box. Lower the box, or get a wider shoe.... Problems with the arch?" he continues, tracing his finger on the inside of the shoe. "The shank is too short.... Tendonitis? The shoe is too wide."

Then the Shoemaster pauses and addresses the rampant problems in his field. Simulating with his hand a foot standing on tiptoe, he says, "Look. Being on pointe is not a normal human activity. This is abnormal."

Ricardo "Pico" Asturias has been shoemaster at Miami City Ballet, which opens its season September 8, for more than five years. This is not some joke title given to a shoe nut or a podiatrist. It is a real-live job in the ballet world. The 40-year-old Asturias supervises a $250,000 annual shoe budget, has a shoe room stocked with thousands of pieces of footwear, and spends hours each week navigating the latest pointe shoe offerings and keeping apprised of the world's shoemakers. His charge: to make sure every one of the company's 50 dancers is "comfortable and beautiful" onstage.

Being a shoemaster is not easy. The lithe women you see in The Nutcracker or Giselle are among the most voracious consumers of footwear. Many ballerinas plow through hundreds each season; some kill theirs in a single performance. And because the pointe shoe — the seemingly simple-looking slipper — is the most important part of a ballerina's costume, the shoemaster's job can be a pressure cooker.

At least one ballerina has blamed Pico for ruining her career. Others in the company talk gushingly about how Pico is a savior, indispensable. "It's one of the most important jobs in the company," says Haydée Morales, the company's costume director. "A good shoemaster is very hard to find. Not everyone understands shoes. There really are only a few in the whole country."

Pico has never danced. In fact he was never especially interested in ballet. Nor did he ever have a particular love for shoes. A native of Guatemala whose family immigrated to Los Angeles, he owned a short-lived clothing store on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue and then did costume work at the Wiltern Theatre. He began working in Miami City Ballet's wardrobe department in 1996. He ironed and cleaned clothes, handled basic repair and maintenance for costumes. He also began learning the distinct language of the pointe shoe (box, shank, vamp) and its ordering nomenclature.

But it wasn't a fluency in pointe-speak that got him the job. "I thought he had the personality to be a shoemaster," Morales says. "You have to be incredibly organized, of course, with all the thousands of shoes. But you also have to be a kind of a counselor to the dancers." There's a lot of dialogue between shoemaster and dancer.

Pico has faced plenty of challenges during his tenure. Sometimes it's technical: say, a pointe shoe malfunction during a performance (occasionally a side seam rips and Pico must scramble to sew or glue it). Sometimes orders come in wrong and must be adjusted quickly. But the most distressing problem of all is entirely out of his hands.

This past March, Pico received a phone call from a representative of the legendary shoe company Freed of London, which provides the vast majority of Miami City's shoes. The Freed representative said one of the makers, known to dancers by the distinguishing mark J (all Freed makers are known by cryptic symbols such as a bell, a bullhorn, a Maltese falcon) had cancer. J would not be able to fulfill his orders.

There aren't many people in the world who specialize in the art of pointe shoes — a practice that has changed little since the days of the tsars. News about J prompted widespread problems in tradition-bound ballet companies from Sydney to New York. Alternatives were needed. The big problem for Pico: Three Miami dancers were hooked on J. "They were very, very upset," recalls Pico. "Each maker has his own distinctive style. And they loved J."

For months Pico worked with each dancer, testing alternative makers. This is a process that can take years.

One of the most satisfying moments in a shoemaster's season is when a solution is finally found. A gleaming example from last season: Principal dancer Charlene Cohen struggled on pointe. They began testing. "We tried leather shanks and cardboard ones. It was too soft or it wouldn't last long enough." And then they finally found the Holy Grail, Pico says while pulling it from the shoe room. "A composite. It's a half-leather and half-cardboard shank. She likes it," he says, smiling.

Sometimes, though, the alternatives don't succeed. A few years ago, after the demise of another venerable Freed maker, a member of Miami City's corps was in such despair that she said she couldn't dance. Nothing could appease her. And she directed her rage at ... the shoemaster. "The girl blames me for ruining her career," he says. "I cannot work miracles. You have to wait for shoes from Freed. These makers have requests from all over the world."

Pico says his chief concerns are the ballerinas who are totally dependent on a single maker. In some ways, they're easier. They're on automatic — you just file the order and that's it. "But I like to have a backup — at least another maker I can go to."

As he explains this most worrisome of shoemaster predicaments, Jennifer Kronenberg enters his office. One of the company's principal dancers, Kronenberg is a one-maker ballerina. "The Maltese Falcon," she says, "that's the only one. I've tried others. But they're never as good."

Pico nods. "We need to find her a backup."

Moments later, while in the inventory room, Pico gestures at all the dancers' cubby holes. They must be stuffed with shoes before the season begins.

He glances at an inventory sheet: five new ballerinas. "Who knows?" he says in his thick accent. "I will call them before they arrive to find out what they like." He smiles and adds that he hopes they're not too dependent on a single maker.

Walking through the small room, he picks up a shoe that looks different, slipperlike but larger. "This is the boys'," he says. "Sansha is the maker." Unlike Freed pointe shoes, which cost $60 a pair and require an eleven-month wait, these shoes "can get here in one day. One day," Pico says. "Look at how simple they are," he continues, holding what looks like a karate shoe. "Boys are so easy. But, then again, they don't stand on pointe. They only do a demi-pointe."

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Josh Schonwald
Contact: Josh Schonwald