The Red Shoes

Martin CullingfordMon 11th January 2010
Moira Shearer, in The Red Shoes (photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd)Moira Shearer, in The Red Shoes (photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd)

A cinema classic restored

A detour into cinema, and into ballet at that: the restored print of the 1948 British film The Red Shoes, which I watched at Manchester’s Cornerhouse. The film traces the developing careers of an ambitious young ballerina and a composer, nurtured by an impresario exacting in his single-minded pursuit of perfection in art.

The restoration was overseen by Martin Scorsese, who cites the film as one his formative influences. The colours – not least the red hair and shoes of the lead actress – are rendered as powerfully-vivid and tinged with an unsettling almost hyper-reality as in the Holman Hunt paintings which hang nearby in the Manchester Art Gallery.

The elegantly unfolding narrative questions and explores the sublimation of human nature to art – as well as the subjugation of a woman's ambition to the social conventions of the time. The intense physicality of dance is grippingly caught, most memorably in the film’s centrepiece. Ostensibly a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of a pair of red dancing shoes which refuse to rest until they have danced their young victim to death, the surreal sequence becomes an insight into the battle for the dancer’s tormented soul, between her ambitions and her heart.

An enjoyable minor moment is when the rookie conductor makes a request of his musicians and is greeted by a far-from-welcoming bank of formidably stony faces. It makes one ponder the astonishing charisma that our present-day crop of young conductors must possess in order to command the respect they have from so many established and esteemed ensembles. Here, however, art doesn’t reflect life. “The Ballet of the Red Shoes” was in reality conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, who needed no classes in commanding his players’ immediate attention. The Oscar-winning score’s composer Brian Easdale was, by happy coincidence, Manchester-born.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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