Costumes and colour in “The Red Shoes”

costumes-the red shoes

Boris Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance, Miss Page?”
Victoria Page: “Why do you want to live, Mr. Lermontov?”
Lermontov: “Because I … err… must”.
Victoria: “That’s my answer too.”


More than a great ballet film, The Red Shoes is pure cinema making and an extraordinary portrayal of the obsession of creativity and of the artistic world. Created by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and their incredible production team, The Red Shoes (1948) changed the landscape of the world cinema. Through its magical use of colour, aesthetic, characters, design, choreography, camera movement, music and the extraordinary passion it transmits, the film was majestically woven into a cinema masterpiece, a compelling parable of the destructive demands made by art upon the artist – you live and die for your art.

Victoria Page, played by Moira Shearer (a leading ballerina herself – her dance posture, her flawless execution!), is a prima ballerina torn between the love for her husband and the love for dance. Using real dancers was one of the revolutionary ideas of the film, which brought together some of the finest dancers in the world, like Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann and Ludmilla Tcherina, and casting a real ballerina in the leading female role was in fact Michael Powell’s condition to make the film. The result is something very rare, a movie made by real artists with real artists.

Moira Shearer was however not convinced from the beginning that she should make the film. In a 1994 interview with Brian McFarlane, from An Autobiography of British Cinema, Shearer confessed she was reluctant to make the film, because she didn’t want the schedule of the filming and the time she took off from the difficult dancing to interfere with her ballet career – she was a ballerina with the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet, having just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics. She gave in to William Powell’s request after a year.

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Part of what makes The Red Shoes so memorable is its aesthetic. The film uses colour like you’ve never seen before. The stunning ballet costumes and layers of pan make-up transport us to another world, a world of dark fantasy. The dramatic effect of the ballet attire is further enhanced by the theatrical set decoration, the work of Hein Heckroth, the art director and costume designer, who was also a painter. It feels like his otherworldly, symbolically charged designs and vibrant colours lure us into Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, on which the film was based. About his film set designs, Moira Shearer said in the above mentioned interview that she found them “rather crude and garish. Perhaps because I was brought up with early editions of Grimm and Andersen fairytales and their much more delicate illustrations. I preferred his designs for The Tales of Hoffmann (ed. note: another Powell and Pressburger film starring Moira Shearer); his Germanic tendency was right for that. And I particularly liked my frilly pantalettes for the doll, Olympia!” And there are, of course, the red shoes, those magic shoes that force their wearer to dance eternally.
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Anton Walbrook is brilliant in his portrayal of Boris Lermontov, the director of the ballet company. The figure of Lermontov is one of which Martin Scorsese says that it haunts his dreams. I can understand why. To Lermontov, ballet is a religion, and he is the image of the total creator, the artist as God, who creates using human materials.
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Moira Shearer, with her alabaster skin and flame red hair, was such a unique beauty. The colours  of the film were in fact built around her hair colour and skin. Her non-ballet costumes, designed by one of the greatest French couturiers of the 20th Century, Jacques Fath, are most suggestive in this regard, as you can see in the set above.
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Ballet doesn’t come across very well on screen, but seeing the dance scenes in the film is like seeing it live. “The Red Shoes” ballet sequence, 17 minutes long, which becomes a parable of the ballerina’s life, simply casts a spell on you. The great Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer of the film, had never been to ballet before he began working on this film. Asked by Michael Powell, he had to learn everything about ballet by visiting all the ballet schools, going to Covent Garden and doing a lot of backstage research. His photography not only gives you the impression that you see the ballet live, but you get to see it from the dancer’s point of view, you move as she moves. I also like how the film manages to capture the complexity of the artistic environment and how artists work together. It grabs your heart and soul.
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Editorial sources: the special features on The Red Shoes
Photo credit: The Archers

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