Dancing Into Cinema
Celebrating Seventy Years of The Red Shoes
by Lily Ekimian
via wikimedia commons
When I was a gangly eight-year-old girl, I wanted to do ballet. I never actually wanted to be a ballerina, but I wanted to dance. And that eight years old me did dance – yet shortly quit to do whatever else eight-year-olds do. A few years later, though, I returned to ballet. I was thirteen then, still gangly, but now dancing in a beginners class with significantly more talented eight-year-old girls. The thought of our first recital led me to, once again, quit, but later that year I joined a jazz ballet class with other girls my age; no surprise, I quit that too. Then a couple more years passed, and I joined my high school dance team. I stuck with this for two years and loved it. But, when a third year came around, I didn’t rejoin the team and have not danced seriously since.
I still think about dancing, and that’s what had initially drawn me to The Red Shoes. But here was a story about a woman who could not stop dancing, who lived to dance, and here I was, someone who spent her life repeatedly stopping. I immediately realised that my passion had been misplaced; what I ended up connecting with in the film was not the ballet I thought I loved so much, but film itself, which I discovered to love more. To celebrate The Red Shoes is to celebrate cinema. This masterpiece by the great filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is as much a movie about movies as it is about dance, perhaps even more so.
The Red Shoes turns 70 this year, released internationally in October of 1948. Critic Roger Ebert has said of it, “the film is voluptuous in its beauty and passionate in its storytelling. You don't watch it, you bathe in it.” To describe The Red Shoes is either incredibly simple or long and involved. “A young dancer is torn between ballet and love” – let us leave the plot at that for now. A longer description centres on the film’s exploration of form. There are a series of adaptations at work here: a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale is adapted into a film, and that film adapted into a ballet and musical score. But The Red Shoes is a film, and the reason it works so beautifully as one is because the internal ballet, taking up a full fifteen minutes of the film, could never actually exist as a ballet; it is a display of pure cinema. How could you transform a newspaper into a cut-out of a man, into an actual man covered in newsprint, then back into a newspaper, all on stage? And then, what is so fascinating about the movie surrounding this ballet sequence is that it looks much more like a play than the ballet itself: backdrops are very obviously painted, the acting verges on melodrama, and one would likely refer to the clothing as costume.
So how does this triumphant film relate back to my unsuccessful relationship with dance? A true dancer may have recognised themselves in Vicky Page, the film’s protagonist, as I hoped to do. But the reaction I ended up having was altogether unexpected. I found myself being inspired not by Vicky’s passion for dancing, but by the ambitious filmmaking of Powell and Pressburger.