Jann Parry sees the classic The Red Shoes film, recently remastered and the associated BFI exhibition
|Title||The Red Shoes (re-mastered): 1948 film by The Archers (Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell)|
The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror. Exhibition at the British Film Institute Southbank
|Company||British Film Institute|
|Venue||British Film Institute, Southbank|
|Date||Tuesday to Sunday Friday 10 November to Sunday 7 January 2024|
To mark the 75th anniversary of The Red Shoes, the film that has influenced so many dancers and film-makers, the BFI has installed a free exhibition of items from the 1948 original as a taster for the screening of a re-mastered version (in cinemas from 8 December). There's also an excellent new BFI booklet by Pamela Hutchison about the film's ‘classic' status, its origins, creative process, and interpretations. The Red Shoes has become a ballet-movie legend more compelling than its inspiration, Hans Christian Anderson's fantasy about a girl forced to dance to her death.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger set out to make a film about the power and importance of art, for which ballet was a metaphor. The core sequence was to be a 17-minute ballet in which ‘design, cinematography, music and dance were exalted'. For this, they needed to bring together a company of ballet-trained dancers and a star who really was a ballerina. They had acquired the film concept in 1939 from the producer Alexander Korda, who intended it as a vehicle for his (then) wife, Merle Oberon – an actress, not a dancer. Powell and Pressburger chose Moira Shearer, who had joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) from Mona Inglesby's International Ballet company.
Outside the ballet world, Shearer, at 21, was unknown. ‘We have no big stars,' Powell wrote in a letter included in the exhibition. ‘We have to create 75% audience-want-to see. No English film has ever yet been sold on a glamorous new young girl. . . We'll show the world we can do better than Rita Hayworth or Ginger Rogers'. He added: ‘Soft-pedal the fact that she is Scottish. The Scots will claim that anyway.' Posters publicised the film as ‘A Dancing, Singing, Swinging Love Tale', with a cartoonish sketch of a red-headed dancer in a black outfit more like a Hollywood swimsuit than a leotard.
The treat for post-war audiences was film in Technicolour (gloriously re-mastered) of sunny locations on the French Riviera, with female stars in couture dresses – no sign of clothing coupons. The era of the story is uncertain. There are evident parallels between the Ballet Lermontov and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in the 1920s but the cast are 1940s contemporaries: Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina and Marie Rambert, in a cameo appearance. Locations included Rambert's tiny Mercury Theatre and Covent Garden Opera and market, as well as the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.
The film is an intriguing mix of glamour, back-stage realism, horror movie and fairytale. Boris Lermontov (Anton Wallbrook) may be Serge Diaghilev – and many other artistic autocrats – but he is also the Beast to Shearer's Beauty as Vicky Page. That's obvious when she, wearing a ball dress, cloak and tiara, mounts the weed-covered stairs to his lair in the Villa Leopolda, to be told that she will star in the company's next creation, The Red Shoes ballet. She is already in love with the composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring): she will have to choose between him and her desire to dance. As Lermontov declares: ‘The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.'
The ‘ballet for camera' at the heart of the film conflates Anderson's cruel fairy story with Vicky's dilemma. It's also a homage to silent movies and dream ballets in Hollywood musicals. Although the choreography credit goes to Helpmann, and to Massine for his role as The Shoemaker of the red pointe shoes, the filmmakers were not concerned with choreography. The dance sequence was devised by the designer, Hein Heckroth, at Powell and Pressburger's instruction. Heckroth's sketches, realised by Ivor Beddoes as vivid storyboards, are on display in the BFI exhibition, along with snatches of Brian Easdale's score. The performers had to fit their movements to the ever-changing background pictures as well as to Easdale's recorded music. Director of photography Jack Cardiff experimented with what he called ‘choreophotography': trick shots, varying camera speeds, steep angles and deep shadows. Shearer's Vicky is more of a predetermined automaton than a classical ballerina.
In her booklet about the film, Hutchinson examines the various phases of the Red Shoes ballet – hard to grasp even after many viewings. It starts with Vicky as The Girl, entranced by the red pointe shoes in a shop window. Magically, they appear on her feet and she dances at a carnival before trying to go home to her grandmother. The Shoemaker lures her away and is replaced in Vicky's mind by Julian and Lermontov. She dances with a newspaper that turns into Helpmann, who later becomes a princely danseur noble in a ballroom. After seeing monsters in a reflecting pool, she is surrounded by pretty flowers, doves and clouds.
She catches sight of Lermontov in his box in the theatre, with the audience transformed into crashing waves. Returning to her senses as a performer, she re-appears as the distressed Girl at her grandmother's funeral. She can't remove the red shoes until the Priest (Helpmann again) saves her and she dies. The Shoemaker retrieves the shoes and proffers them to the audience.
As Heckroth's images in the exhibition reveal, there were multiple costumes, masks and elaborate makeup designs, many seen only for moments. The Red Shoes ballet took six weeks to shoot in Pinewood Studios, after rehearsals in a London studio. Because the original film in its entirety lasted four and a half hours at a press viewing, cuts had to be made. The Heart of Fire ballet near the start of the film was reduced to a final tableau, after three days' filming and three weeks' rehearsal. Who were the hard-working dancers and what did they make of it all?
Assistant ballet masters for the film's Lermontov Ballet were Joan Sheldon, dancer and actress, and Alan Carter, dancer, choreographer and director (eventually co-director of Elmhurst Ballet School.) Ludmilla Tcherina, star of the fictional company, danced with many companies, including the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, as well as acting in other Powell and Pressburger films. Shearer performed in their Tales of Hoffmann four years later. Her career as a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet ended when she had her first child in 1952. She was ambivalent about the celebrity The Red Shoes brought her and disliked the way her dancing appeared on film.
There were 56 corps members, mostly jobbing dancers who attended Vera Volkova's ballet classes in West Street. A number were Australians or New Zealanders who already knew Helpmann. Brian Ashbridge, future principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, was among them. Anne Woolliams became ballet mistress in the Stuttgart Ballet and artistic director of The Australian Ballet and Vienna State Ballet. Audrey Harman eventually taught at the Royal Ballet School and served as its archivist. Jack Carter was a choreographer for London Festival Ballet and other companies. Elizabeth West, cast as Lermontov's secretary, founded Western Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet).
According to the memoirs of one of the corps, Joy Camden, the dancers resented being treated as ‘extras' rather than artists. They spent long days in Pinewood Studios, starting with class at 7.30 am and not leaving the set until late. The floor was punishingly hard on their feet, causing their legs to swell up. The weather was hot and so were the megawatt lights. They had to redo the final funeral procession in the Red Shoes ballet, marching on pointe for ages, because the next day's rushes showed too much mist. But at least they were able to boast forever after about having been in the famous film.
Seeing it yet again, after numerous repeats on TV, in its colour-saturated glory on a big screen, it is clearly a fantasy. Early critics were distressed by its gory ending, though it's hardly realistic. Leichner makeup sticks have made marks on Vicky's tights, along with theatrical Kensington Gore blood; the red shoes are removed from her still-pointed feet. Wallbrook's cracked voice, announcing Vicky's death in front of the Monte Carlo Opera House curtains, is nonetheless heartbreaking. His is a superb performance as a seductive Svengali, who is jealous of his protégée in a way that Goring's Julian cannot possibly understand. Lermontov is a monster, but so is Julian; he is a dictatorial conductor, a composer who expects his wife to give up her career for his. Vicky, too, is obsessive in her ambition to be the great dancer Lermontov promised he would make her. In close-ups, her stage makeup appears demonic.
The Red Shoes is not the mawkish kind of ballet film about the sacrifices a dancer makes – the pain of pointework, the injuries, anorexia, abusive teachers and jealous colleagues. The fictional company members love and believe in what they do. Cineastes might see them as a film crew, bound together in a collective enterprise to create something new and exceptional. Dance lovers recognise the hard physical work that goes into making a performance seem effortless. Powell and Pressburger had made wartime propaganda films (including the wonderful A Matter of Life and Death); The Red Shoes is propaganda for art, as Hutchinson points out in her booklet about the film.
So why does Vicky have to die? Because that's the ending of the Hans Christian Anderson story on which the film is based. Because she said to Lermontov, when he asked ‘Why do you dance?', she replied ‘Why do you live?' If married life prevents her from dancing, she is bound to die. There have been many interpretations of the film, feminist, misogynist, queer, art for art's sake. . . contentious and fascinating, as the film still is, 75 years later.
BFI Film Classics: The Red Shoes by Pamela Hutchinson publ. Bloomsbury
Free entry. Timed slots available Tuesday to Sunday. Advanced booking advised. Book in person at the box office, online or by phone from Thursday 21 September on 020 7928 3232 (lines open 11.30-8.30 daily)
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).