not in our stars, but in ourselves
“Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on!” If I were ever to get anything tattooed on my forehead, it just might be that pithy plot synopsis of The Red Shoes (1948), the Gesamtkunstwerk written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – known more efficiently as The Archers. They were also responsible for Black Narcissus (1947), which is pretty good too. Seeing this before the film starts…
is a reliable sign that you’re in for an excellent couple of hours.
The Ballet Lermontov is the most celebrated dance company in all of Europe, perhaps the world. It produces fresh adaptations of classics, like Giselle, and dazzling new productions, like Heart of Fire. It is at the premiere of the latter that we meet our players: Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a talented young composer; Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a brilliant young dancer; and Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the imperious impresario of the ballet company they’ve all come to see. Both Julian and Vicky impress Lermontov into hiring them – and soon, the two kids fall in love. This is catastrophic news for Lermontov.
He not only disapproves of his dancers’ having love lives – he suggests that the best way to deal with human nature is not to alter it, but to ignore it – but also has developed a more than professional interest in Vicky. Whether or not he would have succeeded in ignoring his own human nature, he has come to see Vicky as his, and so he tells her she must choose either love or dance.
The centerpiece of the film, and the grandest production of the Ballet Lermontov, is The Red Shoes: an adaptation of the tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a girl who puts on a pair of red shoes with a seeming mind of their own. They make her dance, and dance, and dance – until she drops dead. It is a fifteen-minute sequence in the film, one that explodes the boundaries of time and space in a way not dissimilar to Busby Berkeley’s purely cinematic dance numbers, which also allegedly took place on a run-of-the mill theatre stage. Here, Vicky’s fantasies and neuroses pursue her as she dances: within the ballet, the Shoemaker is the aggressor and the enchanter; before Vicky’s eyes, he transforms from the actual dancer, Grischa Ljubov (Léonide Massine), to Lermontov and then to Julian. She floats through the air, she sees an ocean at the boundary of the stage, she imagines Julian ascending from the conductor’s podium to dance with her.
And indeed, the plot of the ballet – with Vicky as the Girl, Grischa as the Shoemaker, and Ivan Boleslawesky (Robert Helpmann) as the Boy – mirrors the plot of Vicky’s life. She has a gift, and she wants to pursue it. She is enchanted into letting it consume her, despite apparently true love. Everything rushes by, and the red shoes dance on.
If nothing else, The Red Shoes is worth seeing for sheer sensual pleasure. Technicolor was made to film Shearer’s copper hair and Hein Heckroth’s gorgeous sets and costumes – all filmed by the artist moonlighting as a cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. The score, too, by Brian Easdale, is sumptuous: by turns dreamy and ravishing, driving and furious. It’s impossible not to draw the obvious comparisons between the Ballet Lermontov and the Ballets Russes – with its own imperious impresario (Serge Diaghilev), brilliant stars (including Massine himself, as well as Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Michel Fokine, and many more), and visionary composers (such as Igor Stravinsky). During the Ballets Russes’ sensational first years in Paris, from the famed Saison Russe in 1909 through the riot premiere of Le Sacre du printemps in 1913, the company was true to its roots – having begun as part of the art movement instigated in Russia by the Mir iskusstva, or World of Art magazine. A world of art was just what Diaghilev created, and what Lermontov seeks to create in The Red Shoes; alas, human nature is not always willing to be ignored. Love upsets Lermontov’s apple cart; schizophrenia overtook Nijinksy; and Diaghilev had the bad taste to die in 1929, throwing his company into disarray.
Theatre, ephemeral thing that it usually is, is mostly the stuff of legends as soon as the performance is over. It is one of the universe’s great blunders, according to yours truly, that the heyday of the Ballets Russes took place before theatrical performances were filmed – and thus preserved. Fortunately, the Archers were able to translate some of that mir iskusstva from the stage to the screen, thus enabling those of us who weren’t around at the time to understand a little more clearly just how amazing it was to be there. Amazing, terrifying, inspiring, consuming – great art can be all these things, and The Red Shoes is an extraordinary – and relatively longlasting – record of some of the greatest art of the twentieth century. That alone is worth the price of admission.