The Red Shoes is a cinematic spectacle that layers ballet and film to depict the anguish and beauty of artistic expression. The 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reimagines the eponymous Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, where a girl is drawn to the red shoes and is unable to take them off, dancing uncontrollably to her death. The film stars Moira Shearer in her debut role as Vicky Page, as she experiences life through dancing and love with composer Julian Craster. The film explores the integral relationship of art and audience, as well as questioning whether a life separate to art is possible.
The Red Shoes follows a dance company preparing to perform and tour with the ballet: but love, art, life, and death are all swept up in the dance. In casting, Powell and Pressburger found dancers who act, rather than actors who dance, resulting in a cinematic experience that is rooted in balletic expression and multi-layered performance. It is a film about loving and needing art. In its central characters – composers, dancers, choreographers and even ballet audiences – there is a human yearning for artistic expression.
Invoking both the legacies of cinema and ballet The Red Shoes dances between the two genres. Through fifteen-minute-long ballet sequences and the plot moving between choreographed dances and intense, dramatic acting, the film it transcends tradition. A visual masterpiece, Powell and Pressburger’s use of colour demands attention like a ballerina on stage. The saturated colour palette, flashes red warning signs in the rich red colour of the shoes and Shearer’s bright red hair. For a post-war British audience living in austere times, the rich interiors and sweeping landscapes of the film only intensify the beauty and intensity portrayed in the ballet.
As Vicky is torn between love and the love of the dance the film becomes more intrinsically manic and surreal. During its ballet sequences, the film uses anguished close-ups of Shearer showing raw emotion, jarringly alongside camera tricks that produce illusions and surreal landscapes, not found within traditional dance. As the red shoes keep on dancing in Anderson’s tale, Vicky is unable to stop the draw of dancing. Reality for Vicky becomes blurred as do the barriers of cinema/ballet for the viewer. The hyper-real and theatrical performances of the actors are rooted in balletic performance, enhancing the surreal atmosphere of the film.
The Red Shoes’ beauty lies in its ability to root itself in the ultimate clash of reality and art. it presents the audience with this central question in its first twenty minutes. As Vicky is asked ‘Why do you want to dance?’, her automatic reply ‘Why do you want to live?’, signals that these are intrinsically one the same.
Although slow to be admired at its original release, and initially rejected by its studio it remains one of the most influential in the cinematic canon. Over seventy years after its initial release, The Red Shoes is a favourite of critics and audiences alike, preserving the eponymous fairy-tale in cinematic tradition.