The woman you love is dancing to the music you wrote, and you’re in heaven. You watch her from your conductor’s stand as she owns the stage, and the two of you perform a pas de deux at a distance. This angel is inhabiting your world, relying on your rhythm, and doing so elegantly, vibrantly—it’s the kind of artistic catharsis you never thought possible. But what makes it a duet is your willingness to bend, to slow your tempo to suit her. A true collaboration comes only when both partners loosen their grip, drop their egos, and allow the work to flourish.
Dancer and composer, actor and director, model and photographer—the fantasy of artistic symbiosis is actually a naturally occurring phenomenon. In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, it’s Vicky Page (real-life dancer Moira Shearer) and Julian Craster (Marius Goring), up-and-coming ballerina and composer, who fall in love during the creation of the film’s eponymous ballet. The love affair is the result of their concurrent creations, but also the consequence of loss. After all, the ballet belongs to someone else—the true auteur is Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the company director. Both Vicky and Julian are victims of flagrant theft, having had their work stolen from them by those eager to exploit it and present it as their own. Neither of them fully recovers from this experience, but on stage they’re somehow able to create something new, something meaningful, and for a few brief moments, something transcendent.
The idea of loss is central to “The Red Shoes,” the 1845 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that lends its plot to both the film and the ballet within. In it, a poor girl makes her own shoes, patched together with bits of red fabric. They’re torn and tattered but they’re her prized possession, and she treasures them as if they were the 19th century equivalent of red-bottomed Louboutins. She’s adopted by a rich old woman who makes her throw away her handmade shoes, but offers to buy her a new pair. At the cobbler’s she goes right for bright red ones, and the old woman’s eyesight isn’t sharp enough to notice how flamboyant they are. When she wears them to church the congregation scolds her, and an old man puts a curse on the shoes that compels them to dance against her will. Ultimately, they dance her to death.
Vicky, of course, meets the same fate, the one we see in the lives of many real-world luminaries driven to death by their art. Throughout their body of work, Powell and Pressburger return to the question of whether life and art can co-exist, and if the urge to live or the urge to create will win out in the end. In Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), a man has a fetish for filming his victims’ deaths—but his creations come at the expense of someone else’s life. In Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), nuns living on a convent in the Himalayas try to erase their pre-vow love affairs from memory to answer to a higher power—their own art form—but their pasts come barging in against their will.
The Red Shoes opens just as the Ballet Lermontov’s premiere of Heart of Fire is about to begin—the guards are holding the theater doors shut to keep the audience from spilling in before the company is ready. The ticket-holders practically break down the doors, dashing to their seats to consume the sights and sounds of the performance. We see the dancers rehearsing while the curtain’s still closed, and hear the orchestra warming up in the only pre-show voyeurism audiences can enjoy from their seats. Once the curtain is drawn, the public will consume the ballet voraciously, violating it with their own interpretations. Life creeping in on art. It will never be exactly what it was when it was composed, choreographed, designed, rehearsed. The presence of the crowd automatically injects it with new meaning, allowing the world in on what was a secret, precious fantasy.
Except in this case, we’re directed toward the violation Julian experiences. The music student sits in the mezzanine as the orchestra starts and recognizes the score as his own. Odd, especially since it’s his own professor who’s listed as the composer in the program. This theft leads him down a path to reclaim his artistic integrity, and his determination eventually lands him a job as a musical director, and then composer, for the Ballet Lermontov. Lermontov ropes in Vicky on the same night—she was watching the performance too, with her aunt, Lady Neston. Lermontov is lured to Lady Neston’s soirée (“She’s a great patron of the arts,” he’s told), and meets the young dancer there. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks Vicky. “Why do you want to live?” she answers, in a line continually quoted by ballet students ever since. “I don’t know exactly why, but I must.” “That’s my answer, too,” she responds. And he’s got her—he was after her art, but he knows he’ll keep her because he has her life, too.
If Lermontov is an auteur, Powell and Pressburger may be the anti-auteurs, at least in theory. Their films are so polytheistic they have two captains at the helm, who then shirk the spotlight even further, dubbing themselves and their production company, “The Archers.” “The Archers Manifesto” has among its points, the notion that, “the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.” Powell and Pressburger’s rosy notion of collaboration is brought to life on-screen in The Red Shoes, which shows an auteurist impresario adapt a folktale as a ballet to fit his own sensibilities. Powell and Pressburger adapt a folktale for film, collaborating with Andersen from a distance while turning his work upside down.
In reality, the Archers were less collaborative than cajoling when it came time to cast The Red Shoes. In 1988, Moira Shearer opened up to The New York Times about how Michael Powell wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when he invited the young star of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet to be the film’s leading lady. “There was no stopping Powell,” she said. “He badgered and badgered.” He would go so far as to wait for her outside the theater where she performed, prompting the company director to beg her to do the film to simply put an end to the ordeal. And so she capitulated, making the decision that ended up defining her career, shooting her to stardom, but—to her disappointment—derailing her from her original goal. It’s no wonder she tried to distance herself from the film for 60 years.
Lermontov is subtler than Powell when it comes to dominating and manipulating his star—regulating her self-worth so that she never thinks she’s too good of a dancer, and making sure her life remains tied to ballet. Lermontov doesn’t fully believe in Vicky until he sees her perform Swan Lake at the hole-in-the-wall Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill. She’s a big fish on a small stage, and in this scene we see the world through her eyes (and experience it in her shoes). Through the use of some exhilarating camera work that mimics the dancer’s movements, we’re shown what it looks like to “spot.” That is, to focus on one point in the room as you turn, whipping your head around to keep your balance and control, and to prevent dizziness. And the camera does just that—perfectly mimicking the rapid revolutions of her piqué turns. The point Vicky has identified is, by chance, Lermontov himself. If she takes her eyes off him, she may fall. This moment marks a shift in Vicky. She goes from buoyantly bounding across the stage, performing for the love of it, to fixating on another figure, someone watching her. When he leaves mid-performance she’s crushed, but he was impressed nonetheless. He invites her to join the company and star in his new ballet.
The story of The Red Shoes was given an even deeper weight in 1992, when Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian analyst and new age feminist, re-examined the folktale in her collection of essays on female archetypes, Women Who Run with the Wolves. Estés reads it as the story of a “wild woman” whose soul is stolen when her handmade shoes are replaced by the new pair. She believes that when women have their art, passion, or other raison d’être stolen from them or cast aside as unworthy, they will compensate by finding a replacement. This could be in the form of fame, addiction, attention-seeking, or other harmful behavior. Both Julian and Vicky join the Ballet Lermontov after being conditioned to think of themselves as unqualified amateurs, and the prestige of associating with a company of such high regard is more than enough to make up for the loss of their more primal artistic instincts, at least temporarily.
While Vicky and Julian’s egos are still significantly bruised when they start rehearsing, they eventually find a way to skirt Lermontov’s control and collaborate on something bigger. Their first act of artistic generosity comes when Vicky asks Julian to slow down during a scene—the music’s too fast. “It’s the right tempo,” he says, cocksure. He won’t budge, but on opening night, he comes into her dressing room: “Vicky, dance whatever tempo you’d like. I’ll follow you.” The performance is a surrealist masterpiece—a nearly 16-minute dance sequence that went on to inspire others in movie-musicals, including Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951)—that illustrates Vicky’s psychology as she struggles over the question of selfhood. Her dance partner is transposed by Lermontov, then Julian. At one point a newspaper morphs into a person, and she does a duet with her anxiety over a bad review. At another, the crowd disappears and all she sees is Julian, dancing only for him as he conducts for her. It’s after this performance—or perhaps during—that they fall in love.
Michael Powell met Thelma Schoonmaker in 1978 at a screening of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Archers’ epic wartime romance from 1943. She was in her own artistic partnership at the time, as Martin Scorsese’s editor, and was in the middle of cutting Raging Bull. She had been in awe of Colonel Blimp since she was a teen, and meeting Powell was a monumental experience for her. Soon after, the two became a couple. She was 45, he was 74. They were married in 1984, and he died in 1990. Since then, she’s championed his work and, together with Scorsese, helped to restore it and present it around the world. She tells stories about the making of The Red Shoes, talks about the restoration of the Archers’ filmed opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), recounts her life with Powell: “He relished every moment. He was amazing to live with, he had a deep understanding of love.” In death, Powell found someone who continues to use him as her fixed point, returning to his work again and again.
Just as Julian and Vicky’s romance brings them further and further away from the collective of the company, Lermontov pounces. While he appears to have feelings for her, what’s more apparent is that he’s lost control of her life, which he knows will lead to his loss of her as a dancer. He fires Julian, but Vicky follows her now-fiancée and quits the ballet. While privately Lermontov breaks down, crashing his fist into his reflection in the mirror, he regroups and invites back his old principal dancer, Irina, who had left the company after getting engaged. It turns out she wasn’t quite ready to abandon the ballet for marriage yet.
Vicky’s return to ballet comes when she’s in Monte Carlo by chance, and Lermontov asks her to perform The Red Shoes one last time. When Julian shows up unannounced to tear her away, she feels herself split in two, possessed by both the power of her art, symbolized by the red shoes she wears, and her life, in Julian. Before she’s forced to choose she’s gripped by something—and the Powell and Pressburger “stare,” that manic, technicolor expression takes over her face. Like Damien Karras in The Exorcist, who, realizing he’s overcome by the devil, throws himself out the window before he loses consciousness, Vicky throws herself off the theater balcony to her death.
It’s the shoes that appear to drag her, stealing her soul away. Her synergy with them was short-lived, existing in the same space as her idealized relationship with Julian: on stage. Once the artifice of performance wears off, we’re reminded that the shoes in the folktale don’t know how to share the spotlight or slow their tempo. In giving over her life to them and to the ballet company, Vicky submits to a life of loss—the genesis of which can be traced back to her decision to center her attention on Lermontov.
But it wasn’t always this way. It’s within the dance sequence that Vicky’s focus momentarily turns away from Lermontov, and toward something higher. These 16 minutes are what the film is best remembered for, and understandably so. The exquisitely crafted universe it creates almost makes you forget about the backstage drama, the pressures of the outside world, the uncertainty of the future. The spectacle even ignores the laws of physics in a way that only Powell and Pressburger can, morphing dancers into doves and turning the stage into a “moving painting,” as Scorsese once described it. We can choose to live there, burrowed safely in the ballet within the film, where collaborators aren’t comandantes, and the audience disappears. Egos disappear, too. For it’s within the artifice of performance that you can lose yourself without longing to replace it with a lesser substitute.
It’s the same in love, they say—two people let go of their egos and exist together, fixed on points outside their own heads. Vicky and Julian create a self-sustaining world together; music and dance, time and space. They’re performing for the one they love, performing for the love of it. A pas de deux at a distance.