The Red Shoes: No Art without Sacrifice

The Red Shoes

Format: Cinema

Date: 11-30 December 2010

Venue: BFI Southbank

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Based on the fairy tale by: Hans Christian Andersen

Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina

UK 1948

135 mins

In 1948 when The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s lush, hallucinatory Technicolor fable of dance’s inexorable power over the dancer, was released, ballet was still on the lower rung of high culture in the UK, its practitioners badly paid, its status as art still questioned by many, and it was lagging behind its European counterparts in resources and respect, if not in talent and drive. The hugely successful film, along with the emergence of stars such as Margot Fonteyn, would help put British ballet on the cultural map; years later, it is still The Red Shoes that seems to communicate the inherently magical, fantastical and otherworldly qualities of ballet to film fans who would otherwise not be interested in tutus, pointe-work and dying swans.

But while The Red Shoes, with its fantasy sequences and Andersen fairy-tale inspiration, is cited as illustrative of the darker powers of dance – of its capacity to beguile and obsess and break the hardiest spirit – much of the film also focuses on the sheer hard work and make-do camaraderie of daily life in a mid-20th century touring ballet company, the nuts and bolts of preparing a work for the stage and the personal dynamics that go with it. This magical multiplicity will always be for me the film’s greatest achievement. The Red Shoes is a film about making ballet that not only contains an entire ballet, but that has about it the very quality of ballet itself – its romantic absolutes, its melodrama, its broad strokes. It is a dreamlike and stylised fable about ambition and sacrifice that simultaneously contains some deeply felt moments of empathy and understanding of injustice, selfishness, disappointment, and dishonesty. It is a strange Chinese Box of a film that required real dancers Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and Leonide Massine to play out the story of their art form’s impermanence and cruelty, their questionable acting layered with the gorgeous veracity of their dancing.

Watching the new, restored version is a sumptuous and intoxicating experience, the film’s hues almost dangerously high-contrast, and the cinematography’s exaggerated qualities highlighted more than before. While it was hard to remember to switch from fan to critic in the warm darkness of the BFI cinema (and I am a Red Shoes fan, a proper, tearful, spellbound type of fan), my recollection of this viewing is that the heightened detail brought about by the new print had an interestingly alienating effect, bringing to the fore perhaps a warning about trusting too much to formal beauty, forgetting, as in Joanna Newsom’s song ‘En Gallop’, ‘truth that lacks lyricism’. Or, more bluntly: this is theatre, believe in it too hard and there will be nothing but emptiness left when the curtain lowers, especially for a woman, whose abandonment of the home is bound to bring hardship (‘Life passes by… love passes by,’ as Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov says when describing the ballet’s synopsis to composer Julian (Marius Goring).

I have never really liked the interpretation of The Red Shoes as merely cautionary tale, though, for not only does it downplay the film’s non-naturalistic, allegorical style, it also propagates the binary and simplistic myth of the creative life as one of domestic or emotional sacrifice, when the truth is more complex and personal than that interpretation – which has acted as a get-out clause for many a relationship as well as stymied careers through guilt and blame – allows. At the same time, this message runs through The Red Shoes and cannot be ignored, whatever we think of it, and the themes of sacrifice and fulfilment, while universal, are perhaps heightened by the physical and mental intensity of a practice such as dance. If there is a darker side to ballet as portrayed in The Red Shoes, it might well be in its more ‘real’ elements, rather than in any supernatural or magical force: in the tension and constant competition between artists, in the physical extremes of a dancer’s life and in the actual stories, often of young, vulnerable, talented people, from which Powell and Pressburger might have drawn their source material.

It was not necessarily easy to come by such source material, however, for if ballet was a questionable art form, film was decidedly seen as low-brow. As The Red Shoes has passed into cinema legend, feted by Scorcese (who helped raise the funds for the film’s restoration), De Palma and many others, and film as a medium has attained an artistic status possibly unimaginable to critics of the 1940s, it’s amusing to read about Moira Shearer’s initial reluctance to take part in the project at all. According to her account in Meredith Daneman’s biography of fellow ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Shearer, then a very promising 21-year-old dancer, felt that a film role was nothing short of artistic compromise – and possible career suicide. ‘Wretched man – he was always hanging around the theatre,’ she said of Michael Powell. ‘I didn’t really want to do it.’ Shearer was eventually persuaded into the role by Royal Ballet founder and British ballet visionary Dame Ninette de Valois, who, while reportedly hating the film, recognised its potential in bringing her young artists (Helpmann was also in the company) and ballet in general to a wider audience, in particular an American one. It is perhaps noteworthy that, while The Red Shoes is often read from a gender studies perspective as the story of a woman, Shearer’s character Vicky, symbolically torn between the wills of two men, in reality it is a woman, de Valois, who seems to have dictated to and manipulated dancers such as Shearer and Fonteyn with the ruthlessness characterised by the impresario Lermontov in the film. With the exception of Marie Rambert appearing very briefly in the Mercury Theatre scene, the presence of powerful women in British ballet of the period is rather lacking in The Red Shoes, and Shearer’s resourcefulness and resilience as an artist and personality are of less dramatic interest to Powell than the tragic heroine that Vicky becomes.

But for every Shearer – who, incidentally, did seem to ‘have it all’, with a flawless dancing career followed by happy domesticity – there would have been many others whose lives as dancers took darker, unhappier turns, with careers brought to an abrupt end by injury or poverty, and the spectre of age and obsolescence always waiting, with creaking joints, in the wings. And the compulsion to dance at the cost of all else, forever, mythologised in the Ballet of the Red Shoes, brings to mind Margot Fonteyn, whose adulation and success masked a troubled, anguished personal life, and whose joy in dancing seemed often to be tinged with rivalries, anxiety, loneliness and, as she carried on dancing into late middle age, physical pain and weakness. Daneman makes the comparison between the two, often competing, dancers in a perhaps simplistic way, but in doing so makes quite a case for the Red Shoes myth – even if, as a dancer and dance critic rather than a film one, she’s compelled to describe the film’s story as ‘corny’.

The Red Shoes was presented in a new digital print at the BFI Southbank, London, on 11-30 December 2009.

From a dance practitioner’s view, of course, the narrative of The Red Shoes is overplayed, histrionic, unrealistic; even for admirers of Powell and Pressburger’s aesthetic it can seem quaint, a stylistic exercise lacking in emotional resonance. But to isolate any one element of The Red Shoes is to miss its unique ability to convey a kind of total effect similar to that brought about by dream, or music, or memory. The power of dance lies in its capacity to create this effect, through the evocative movement of a human frame, bones and muscles in tune with melody and harmony, discipline honed to invisibility so all that we see and hear is a porcelain-skinned young woman opening the door onto a painted street scene and – at one with the tentative oboe line of Brian Easdale’s score – fluidly gliding into being. It is a fleeting effect, and one we chase after, in dreams, in love, as spectators of art, and (for some of us) as artists; The Red Shoes, in a way, lyrically documents this pursuit, celebrates the poignant, youthful fervour of those who pursue. Is it dark, though, or dangerous? Despite the outcome of The Red Shoes, I like to think that Powell and Pressburger do not ever really make that judgement for us.

Frances Morgan