If the shoe fits . . . thank Michael

Heart and sole: Michael Clifford with just a fraction of the ballet shoes under his charge as the Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shoe Master

WHEN it comes to putting your best foot forward Michael Clifford has plenty of choice as to what to wear - with something like 2,500 pairs of shoes tucked away in his wardrobe at any one time.

Not quite Imelda Marcos - she managed more than 3,000 pairs - but its enough to be getting on with. Not that any of them are his, mind you.

Michael is the Shoe Master of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, one of those vital jobs never seen nor really thought about by audiences but which are essential to the success of every performance.

Like the ballet he will be celebrating 20 years in Birmingham having moved up from London as an assistant in the costume department with what up to then had been the Saddler's Wells Royal Ballet.

Michael, now 46, was not a Londoner though. He is  . . . well, as he says, “I am an Army brat. I was born in Malaysia, lived in Europe for most of my schooling and my family were from the Wirral so my father decided to return there when he retired from the Army. I went to London to college and didn't go back.”

College was theatre school where he trained in technical stage management which covered theatre, opera, musicals and  . . . no ballet.

“Ballet wasn't part of it at all. I had been working in the West End and I got an interview for the the wardrobe department for the opera at the Opera House and when I got there they were interviewing for the Royal Ballet as well and asked if I wanted to be interviewed for that as well. I said fine but I didn't think I would get it because I had no knowledge of ballet at all. I ended up being offered the job in wardrobe for Saddler's Wells so I kind of fell into it.

*I was with the company about four years before we moved up here and I had already had my fill of London so it was an opportunity to move out with a job. A year after moving up here I was asked to apply for the shoe job and it just went on from there.”

Michael, who has spent more than half his life working with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, already knew Birmingham as the ballet came two or three times a year to its No 1 touring venue and at the time of the move the city was a vast building site with all the city centre developments, the ICC, Symphony Hall, Victoria Square and so on under way. “A lot of people said I was mad but it has worked out fine.”


From the technical side of the ballet's point of view the move has not turned out too badly either. “Space is the biggest change. In the building where we were, the old Saddler's Wells, the technical department was just squidged in to this tiny building. Everyone else was based at the Opera House, we didn't see them. Here the whole ground floor is technical and lighting, wardrobe and wigs take a huge section.”

In London, where storage space is expensive,  he said that costumes were spread far and wide and a trip to bring costumes back meant a whole day out of the office. Now, with all the costumes in Dudley it is just a short trip up and down the road. “You can do what you want to do and soon be back in the office.”

Even the dancers are on call. “We have the studios on the top floor so the dancers are nearby if we need them for anything.”

And when it comes to the dancers Michael's knowledge is essential from knowing who wears out shoes quickly, which dancers are light as a feather in pointe work so can keep shoes wearable longer, who is . . . awkward, or wants regular adjustments - in short knowing all the dancers and as far as possible keeping them both happy and well stocked with shoes.

“With the girls, at any one time, I have about 60 pairs each. It fluctuates a little, it depends on how quickly they wear out their shoes and if I can get their shoes fairly quickly. If it is a bespoke shoe then I do like to have a certain amount in.

“The girls can use about 10 pairs a month. If their maker gets injured, particularly with Freed of London where it is an individual person making their shoes - and we have had people go off with broken arms, broken legs or something like that - it means they can't make shoes.

“So by the time the maker comes back the dancers can be down to their last ten pairs so that is my safety margin.

“We have 35 girls. With the boys I can have lower stocks because they tend to be stock sizes and we can buy off the shelf. I don't think there is a company in England now that we use for the boys, they are now mostly from Thailand, North Africa via France, Brazil and China nut there are warehouses in Europe carrying large stocks.

“Traditionally they are not so difficult. The boys, we have 27,  tend to have twenty pairs each, ten black and ten white. 

“They are canvas so they don't wear out as much - and the men are lazy and don't like sewing them.”

When it comes to price a girl's shoe comes in at about £32 while a boy's shoe is a snip at about £7 (remember, though, bulk buying would be a tad of an understatement) although in the BRB's Edward II when the men all wore thigh length leather boots - three yards of leather each - they were coming in at £500 - that's £250 a leg!!!


Michael's job is not just a question of keeping shoes in stock, like a glorified branch of Clarks though. When new girls join Michael draws and measures their feet and keeps one copy for his records and sends the other to their chosen maker which could be in London, Germany, Russia, Australia . . . anywhere.

Shoes also need to be prepared for performance as you can see with Michael painting pairs right.

For the Rites of Spring more than 200 pairs had to be painted by hand  in red and yellow patterns and shoes are routinely sprayed to go with costumes.

On top of that Michael has to check the status of orders which have been placed with makers all over the world.  He also has to check his stocks of shoes to see what has been used and what needs to be ordered and then, because the Birmingham Royal Ballet also has to run as a business, once a month there is a full stock take so the finance department can be told how many shoes have been used “so they can keep tabs on it”.

“There are always orders going through and then there are the girls, it is almost always the girls that you deal with, who are always fine tuning their shoes so it is contacting the factory and saying can we change this measurement or try that measurement.

“I usually order in units of 20 so it might be a case of can you hold off on 15 and just do five with this alteration and see if that works.

“Then we are always working towards shows, looking at the castings, costumes, fitting people, if shoes don't fit ordering remakes from theatrical shoe companies. It is always fluid. Even last week we had an amended Sleeping Beauty casting and they are on stage this afternoon. We are constantly updating and changing things. No pun intended but you are kept on your toes. 

“We are not just working on Sleeping Beauty, we are working on other shows as well and in the midst of this we are also beginning to pack to go off on our tour to America. That stuff goes off in April just after we come back from our Spring tour.

“I will be sending ten pairs for each girl. It is Swan Lake so there is lots of pointe work and they will need shoes for rehearsals and, if the weather gets hot then it has an effect on the shoes. In Norfolk last year it was very warm and in hot weather the shoes  break down quicker.”

The BRB American tour takes them to Norfolk, Virginia again with performances from May 7-9 and provides another opportunity for travel which has also taken the Shoe Master to China with the ballet as well as tours of Britain.


Amid all of this Michael also has to deal with dancers who are striving for perfection - and that includes their shoes.

“The funniest line you hear is a dancer who comes in and says I haven't any shoes and you look around and they have 40 pairs. What they mean is they haven't got shoes that they want to wear.

“You can be dealing with some difficult personalities but then you have to understand that they have to go on stage and perform because I would not be able to do what they have to do.”

With bespoke pointe shoes  Michael works closely with Michelle Attfield of Freed who will tell him which maker is available, unless it is a Principal where the hierarchy of theatre comes into play and a specific maker is requested. “With Corps de Ballet you try to steer them to makers who are perhaps not quite so busy.

“If you are a company abroad, in the USA for example, there is sometimes a six month waiting time from when the order is placed to when the shoe is made and you get them after seven months. We can get them in six weeks which is one of the privileges of being an English company.

“I don't know what some of the girls would be like if they had to wait seven months - they think six weeks is too long.  They can be very impatient.

“If the shoes are right I won't see them again if they are wrong . . . I will see them three times a day every day until the get what they want."

Not that Michael minds. You get the feeling he is doing a job he loves and next time you see a ballerina perfectly balanced on a well shod toe - remember Michael.

Roger Clarke

Pictured above is an example of the pointe makers' art with the Freed Classic Pro in classic pose.




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