Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Film Ballet - A New Art Form?
Story and photographs by Maurice Ambler
From Ballet Today magazine, January 1948
A British film is again breaking new ground. It is a full length technicolour [sic] film about ballet.
It is not a film with a stage ballet included only because ballet happens to have a large following. If you want to see stage ballet you must still go to the theatre. But this is not stage ballet at all - it is ballet written for or translated for filming. And that is a very different pair of shoes altogether - in fact The Red Shoes.
Ballet lovers say that films about ballet in the past have not been recognisable as the ballets they have learned by heart. From the point of view of a theatre audience this is understandable; for, whereas the audience does not move, the camera has moved and rightly so. From close-up of face to close-up of feet and from one dancer to another the camera has selected and simplified where no such selection or simplification was ever required by the choreographer. It must therefore be admitted that the result to the initiated has been a disappointment.
Now for the first time in the film The Red Shoes, ballet has been planned as though through the camera lens, and it could not be produced in any other way than by film. Now the great gift of mobility that the film has utilised to beautiful effect in emphasising and punctuating in its own way the rhythm of a new and exciting medium.
The team which is making this unique and extremely difficult film is a brilliant one. First, the great Leonide Massine, probably the most famous male dancer in the world and one of the outstanding figures in the whole history of ballet. In the film are several ballets in which he dances; one of them is his own ballet La Boutique Fantastique which he has translated for this film.
Emeric Pressburger is the producer and wrote the story which was inspired by a fairy story by Hans Andersen. Simply, it is the story of a girl who had to dance; thus it contains ballet and also the thoughts that fill her mind. It tells something of the inspiration, the worry and the work that lies behind ballet.
The director is Michael Powell who calls this film the most unusual of all the unusual films he has done. Together producer and director have achieved some noteworthy films - 49th Parallel, I Know Where I'm Going, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus.
Hein Heckroth, who worked for many years with Ballets Jooss, has done the décor. But it is more than that. It was his idea, after reading the story, that founded the ballets performed in the film. To create The Red Shoes ballet visually Heckroth made four hundred drawings of every stage of the ballet's progress and made a film of these drawings. This cartoon runs thirteen minutes and has proved a superbly successful device to assist choreographer Robert Helpmann (whose unique combination of knowledge, both of ballet and film technique, made him the essential choice for this side of the work), musician Brian Easdale, the director, and Heckroth himself, to collaborate in producing the ballet sequences.
The music is by Brain Easdale, who wrote the strange, barbaric music for Black Narcissus. It was shortly after this that he conceived an ambition - to be music director to a picture which was planned in the initial stage and directed throughout in terms of music. "As, in a ballet, the music is complementary and not subsidiary to the choreography", he argues, "why not to action and dialogue in films?"
He has come close to realising this ambition in The Red Shoes, for although the music for La Boutique Fantastique is, of course, Rossini's, Easdale has written the music for other ballets in the film in addition to the complimentary (not background) music for it.
n The Red Shoes ballet there is a dream sequence of almost frightening nightmare reality. The effect is entirely due to the blending of dancing, music, acting and décor. Dancers melt into drawings, bodies become paper. You, as the audience, start to see the ballet from the gallery of Covent Garden. Then you slowly come down and on to the stage. From then on you become, as it were, a member of the ballet seeing it all happen around you. Moira Shearer is the delightful person you follow throughout. Acting and dancing, she hardly leaves the screen and seldom has any actress or ballerina had so arduous a role.
As you reach the stage from the gallery you seem to be projected into her thoughts and you are carried with her out of the "reality" of the ballet into the "unreality" of her imagination while she dances. It is a dream carried out in ballet form, and thus an extension of the ballet. It is also the perfect treatment for the fairy story on which it is based. It is a strange and exciting world into which you are carried, and film is the only medium which could produce it.
Let those who are making the film speak for themselves.
Massine: "Film ballet lacks the third dimension of stage ballet, but it gains enormously in its greater dramatic effect. It is good ballet yet a medium all its own. I have the greatest respect for Michael Powell's treatment of the story with the ballets."
Hein Heckroth: "Ballet is like a language. It cannot be arranged carelessly or its meaning is lost. Film ballet must be planned to the last detail before coming to the floor. The conventions of ballet must be respected if the value of the ballet is to be preserved. The colour throughout the film has been dictated by the characters and the story. The colour changes as the emotion changes."
Michael Powell: "The salient feature of this film is simply Moira Shearer. Before this film could be started it was necessary to find a dancer on the brink of becoming a ballerina; about twenty years of age; beautiful; exquisite figure and legs; strength of character; who could dance all the classical parts; and finally a dancer who could act and not an actress who pretended to dance. If we had not found Moira Shearer we could not have made the film."
Jack Cardiff (photographer): "Many new tricks have had to be employed to carry out the highly imaginative ideas in the script. One of these was to vary the speed of shooting in order to interpret the dance to suit the choreography. This device has to be used with restraint and only to gain an essential effect. For example, two figures pirouette before the camera and, as they turn, the speed of the camera is changed so that we can get the impression of the figures spinning like a top which dissolves into another different figure. The audience need only be concerned with the effect. How it is done is part of the camera art."
In short, film has been given complete liberty and added something to ballet. It is not going to put Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells out of business, any more than theatres closed when films began. The media are different. Whether or not it throws new light on stage ballet it is certainly a form of entertainment with a character all its own and which may well have a following as particular and as ardent as ballet for the stage.
See what the Ballet Critics said after it had been released and they realised how popular it was.
See also Moira talking about her experiences in 1949 and in 1994.
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