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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Love and Dance: Two Obsessions, One Classic Film
By Alastair Macaulay
New York Times, 31 August 2008
Sixty years ago next week the Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes opened to admiring reviews in its native Britain without causing any immediate box office sensation. Nobody guessed that it would become one of the highest-earning British movies of all time. Why would they? This is a film about ballet as obsession, and it ends not in its heroine.s glory but in her death.
It often looks as though it will turn into something much more conventional. Later ballet films and many ballet novels have told their versions of the standard story of a woman's choice: career success or married love. In The Turning Point (the hit ballet movie of 1977) Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine represent those two choices, 20 years after they've made them. This polarity was the stuff of so many women's movies of the 1930s and '40s, just now shifted to ballet: Bancroft is the famous ballerina, Ms. MacLaine the fulfilled wife and mother. And the film's clichés only begin there.
The same choice permeates The Red Shoes, but it is presented to the aspiring ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) at a melodramatically high pitch. Within the film's first hour Lermontov (Anton Wallbrook [sic]), the boss of what is evidently the world's greatest international ballet company, has snarlingly announced: "You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never!" Victoria, or Vicky, in full makeup and about to go on stage in the corps de ballet of "Giselle", hears his words. Indeed they seem aimed at her ears.
Lermontov, the embodiment of the possessive impresario, was based on Serge Diaghilev, who had fired his two greatest male stars, Vaslav Nijinsky (in 1913) and Léonide Massine (in 1921), because they had been his lovers but switched tracks to marry women without his consent. The relationship Lermontov has with his dancers also anticipates those that George Balanchine would have with Suzanne Farrell and her husband, Paul Mejia. The complications of that triangle reached their climax in 1969, when the two dancers, amid intense pressure about his casting decisions, suddenly quit New York City Ballet.
Only when The Red Shoes reached America did it take off, converting unnumbered thousands of girls to ballet. It had a direct effect on the colossal success, in 1949, of the first American tour of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, the British ballet company that included the film's heroine, the red-headed Shearer, and one of its dancer-choreographers, the intensely theatrical Robert Helpmann. The success of the Sadler's Wells Ballet - in which Margot Fonteyn enjoyed a triumph above and beyond those of Shearer and Helpmann, and which went on to make extensive tours of North America, at least once every two years until 1976 - helped the popularity of other companies. Balanchine's young New York City Ballet in particular profited. Ballet, thanks in large part to The Red Shoes, snowballed.
One of those girls whom The Red Shoes converted to ballet was the 9-year-old Lynn Springbett, growing up in Vancouver. She became Lynn Seymour, the supreme dramatic ballerina of the last half of the 20th century and the most remarkably original dancer in the history of the Royal Ballet (as the Sadler's Wells Ballet became in 1956). In her autobiography Ms. Seymour called the movie "one of the revelatory experiences of my childhood". Yet you look at the movie, and you marvel that these girls wanted to devote themselves to such an art.
The film's story keeps turning and turning the screw. Vicky becomes Lermontov's latest star in the new ballet of The Red Shoes only to discover love offstage with its composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Like Nijinsky, Massine and Ms. Farrell, Vicky marries Craster against Lermontov's wish and finds herself unemployed. Later she returns to Lermontov's ballet company without telling Craster. Finally, when both Lermontov and Craster are threatening to withhold her twin needs - dance and love - the red ballet slippers take matters into their own demonic, death-dealing grip.
They propel her out of her dressing room, out of the Monte Carlo opera house where she is about to dance in (of course) The Red Shoes, into a leap off a balcony (sheer "Tosca") and into the path of an oncoming train (sheer "Anna Karenina"). The film begins and ends with the image of a flame (stardom, life's brief candle) poised above the red shoes. It is those point shoes that bring the flame's greatest brightness and its final extinction.
Melodrama! Kitsch! Ham! Entirely undistinguished choreography! Add that its Red Shoes ballet could never be danced onstage. (Its dissolving scene changes are sheer cinema, and the ballerina role is too nonstop for any dancer's stamina.)
Even so, The Red Shoes remains a classic. Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote the original story, was the son of a shoemaker, and his own dreams of becoming a dancer were disappointed. Shoes and feet recur, often painfully, in his stories, and never more cruelly than here. The direction also brings out dark pressures that feel more like the dark force of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the great storyteller who had powerfully influenced Andersen in the first place. Lermontov: "Why do you want to dance?" Vicky: "Why do you want to live?" Lermontov: "I don't know, exactly, but I must." Vicky: "That's my answer too."
Dance isn't just Vicky's vocation; it's her destiny. The real force of The Red Shoes lies in the tension between impresario and ballerina. Wallbrook plays Lermontov not quite realistically; the story's feverish melodrama comes from him, and he seems at once absurd and hypnotic. As Vicky, Shearer is compelling in the opposite way, for her lack of exaggeration. Her dancing glows; her manner is demure. In consequence she seems more real, more like us, than any other character.
My own favorite episode, told with wonderful expansiveness by the directors, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell with scarcely a word spoken for two and a half minutes (and no dancing), is when we feel destiny at its most seductively mysterious. We're in Monte Carlo. Lermontov has sent Vicky an invitation to meet him in the evening.
In gala haute couture she is driven in his open-top car high above the Mediterranean coast. The music builds to a climax. The chauffeur deposits her at a half-closed palace gate, behind which a brick staircase is covered in weeds. It's as if she had arrived at Sleeping Beauty's castle.
"Montez, mademoiselle," the chauffeur says, and he leaves her there. Suddenly it's near silence. Then, as she starts to climb the staircase, her cloak billowing behind her, we hear, inexplicably, a distant soprano voice in sirenlike song. As Vicky reaches the top and approaches the house, we see the sea.
The whole scene is the most mythic part of the film. Vicky seems to be moving into fairy tale, legend, out of time. Where is her journey leading? What's funny - and it is one of the many examples of how The Red Shoes manages to transcend its own melodramatic and kitschy nature - is that what awaits her inside the house are men at work in their shirt sleeves. Lermontov offers her the central role of the new ballet he is preparing with full sense of its importance, but he and his colleagues are men at work, and they soon allow her to depart.
Throughout The Red Shoes romantic fantasy rubs shoulders with the daily grind, yoked together by ballet. Though Lermontov was not a real-life person, the film shows us places and people who were already part of ballet history: the Royal Opera House amid the old Covent Garden fruit-and-vegetable market; Marie Rambert zealously watching a "Swan Lake" performance in the little Mercury Theater; the opera houses of Paris and Monte Carlo; and Massine dancing his original role in "La Boutique Fantasque," which he had choreographed for Diaghilev almost 30 years before. These were living legends; The Red Shoes enshrines them.
The film pays fetishistic attention to all of ballet's detailed contrivance: the elaborate makeup, the constant audience-consciousness, the endless attention to minutiae of musical timing and technical articulation. Brilliantly it closes in on one particular feature of ballet technique: the way dancers "spot" in turns, fixing their eyes on one focal point while turning so that their head is the last part of the body to turn but the first to arrive. When Vicky dances the Swan Queen at the tiny Mercury Theater in London, she finds that - by chance or fate - she is spotting on Lermontov himself. She had not known he was present. He is sizing up her star potential.
The camera here becomes Vicky: spotting, turning, spotting. What it shows is what she sees: Lermontov (staring fixedly back), whirl, Lermontov.
These images turn The Red Shoes into what we might call a study of the psychopathology of ballet. Physical fixations and psychological obsessions meet as one. Ms. Seymour recounts in her autobiography that, when she saw it, "the ballet became a state of heart."
© New York Times Company
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