For today’s Dance Movie post, I’m going big with The Red Shoes…. Arguably the best representation of the ballet world ever committed to fictional film! Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece beautifully captures the obsessive nature of classical ballet and shrouds protagonist Victoria Page’s (Moira Shearer) struggle to choose between her true love and her love of ballet, in gorgeous cinematography, dreamy sets and costumes, brilliant dancing and an outstanding cast.
I recently re-watched the film, and was once again impressed at how it remains compelling and relevant, despite being set during a very different period of ballet than now. What remains, besides a tour de force in beautiful film making, is the sense of commitment and sacrifice ballerinas have to make over and over again… The bittersweet struggle of wanting to be at once supernatural and normal; wanting to be a ballerina AND a regular person. That ambivalence, prevalent in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name, is what I think really drew me into this film. The obsession Victoria feels which ultimately leads to pain and loss is something that I feel I can relate to (and probably most ballerinas feel the same way.) She states her affliction to Artistic Director Boris Lermontov (AntonWalbrook) early on in the film answering his question “Why do you want to dance?” with “Why do you want to live?”
The answer to both is “I must.” And so begins our journey into obsession.
Boris Lermontov is the classic picture of the the ballet artistic director – in moments he seems incredibly generous and then suddenly cold. He’s at once genius and pig-headed. His tyrannical manner was partially based on Sergei Diaghilev, and as prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja says in the film, “He has no heart!.” He is, in a way, the red shoes in human form – Always demanding that the dance go on for Victoria. And she can’t resist.
Besides the powerful emotion coursing through the film, it also portrays a historical era of ballet – when company and choreographer and composer and designer and painter and dancers all worked together to create a full scale production with every story ballet. It’s the closest one can get to seeing Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in a behind-the-scenes melodrama. It even co-stars the great dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine – A star of Diaghiliv’s Ballet Russes as well as the later Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. That in itself is thrilling. Throw in the gorgeous sets, costumes and cinematography of the film, and well, shucks…. How can you not fall in love?
Furthermore, the love story between Vicky and young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) provides the other sweet side of the ballet coin. The two are thrust together by Lermontov in the creation of his new ballet, and throughout the stressful rehearsals the two headstrong young artists drive each other crazy, burt it’s not long before they find a passion for each other that they can’t ignore. They fall in love, and everything seems perfect for a moment, until Lermontov finds out….
If nothing else you should see this film for the performance of Moira Shearer as ‘Vicky.’ She is nothing short of brilliant. And her ballet technique is really quite remarkable given the time and taking into account the caliber of other film ballerinas during that period. Shearer puts them all to shame. The actual Red Shoes ballet scene is incredibly moving and stunning to behold.
The Verdict: The Red Shoes is the full package. It’s not just a great dance movie, it’s a great film. Full stop. It’s compelling, thrilling, entertaining, and has brilliant music, dancing and acting. It’s a classic, one that every dancer should see and every non-dancer should see too. Even Martin Scorsese counts it as one of his personal favorites and has an impressive collection of Red Shoes artwork and memorabilia. So yeah. This ballet film is the real deal!