The Red Shoes Powell and Pressburger (UK; 1948) Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 16 Jan 2020; ticket: £7
What is this thing called ‘Dance’…?
Powell and Pressburger made a series of films, ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘I know where I am going’ and ‘The Red Shoes’, in which the key characters are all women. The governing concept of all these films was the absorption of the principal female characters into a mythic type structure. Powell and Pressburger’s protagonists are set into situations where their individual purposes and desires are overwhelmed, they have understand how to live with the unleashed judgement of cosmic forces over which they have no control.
What is radical in their female protagonists is that they are protagonists: the characters are not stereotypical women’s parts made up of types: wife, betrayed woman, mother, revengeful lover etc. They are women abroad in the world on their own terms.
And the worlds into which they’re released, are outside the genre conventions of Hollywood. They are arcane worlds created by Powell and Pressburger, worlds without rules in which the women have to seek out their own destinies, where as the protagonists they must understand and come to terms with the forces set against them and determine their own fates.
The nuns in ‘Black Narcissus’ with their sense of order and duty, are overwhelmed by the latent sensuality of their new home embedded in and expressed by the films powerful colourisation of the world they have come to help. Understanding they are unequal to this psychic challenge they retreat. Joan, the protagonist in ‘I know where I am going’, prevented by the sea from crossing the narrow strip of water to the island where her wealthy husband-to-be waits to marry her, experiences the limits to her individuated will. The sea, the rocky promontories and the wisdom of the islanders finally permeate her psychic response; she understands that she must take on a new way of seeing her situation which incorporates the historical and mythical elements that shape the people and their environment. In ‘The Red Shoes’, Moira Shearer, as Vicky, with her flaming red hair, embraces dance as possession; she embraces the mythic death that has already been mapped out for her as she dances her role in the eponymous ballet piece for which she becomes famous. Her death, is her choosing of dance as an intensity beyond the claims made upon her by men. It is a fable of the power and danger of possession; but it is also an affirmation of a life, of a possibility of a realm beyond life which can be realised in dance. The dance dream sequence of the Red Shoes ballet is not just a spectacle it is an affirmation of a shamanistic belief in the capacity of dance to carry the dancer beyond herself.
Although dance fantasy sequences, in particular those directed by Busby Berkeley, were staple Hollywood fare in the 1930’s, these were normally presented as erotically charged assemblages using a mass of dancers, mostly women, to create a mechanical expressive machine, responding to and giving visual pulse to the score. Astaire and Rogers personalised dance, making their own unique claim on cinematic movement but the presentation of their dance remained located in ‘the world’ set up in the script, however surreal that world might me, such as the wings of an aircraft. Notable also is that these big number dance sequences of 1930’s vintage were all placed at the end of the movie, so that the films are ultimately defined dance in terms of spectacle.
What is interesting about The Red Shoes’ dance sequence is that it comes more or less in the middle of the film. There is a reason for this. The sequence is an intrinsic part of the film’s plot and is so placed as a critical juncture in Vicky’s life. It represents Vicky’s psychic absorption into the dance. Her dance is spectacular but it also represents her experience as a dancer possessed, an experience that lives on in her and is a vision that carries her through the rest of the film. In this sense this outstandingly choreographed dance sequence has a psychic reality: it is not a fantasia. The sections after this sequence show Vicky’s integration of her dance into her being.
Powell and Pressburger in the Red Shoes (with the sublime help of of Jack Cardiff’s cinematography) turn Vicky’s dance into her complete freedom to move through worlds. Dance is passage from one world to another; ‘dance’ as a kind of worm hole, connecting distant worlds. The dancer becomes shaman, in one movement able to span universes in hallucinogenic flight. Moira Shearer in ‘The Red Shoes’ sequence, traverses multiple experiential situations that close in around her like a dream before the impulse and impetus of the dance enable her to cut through each successive dream barrier onwards finally reaching her own final death sequence. “Dance is no longer simply movement of world, but passage from one world to another, entry into another world, breaking in and exploring”. (Deleuze – Cinema 2 p.63). Dance becomes for Vicky a magico-religious rite, an opening of the doors of perception; such a rite of course incorporates death into its realisations.
Minnelli and Kelly must have looked carefully at ‘The Red Shoes’ structure before creating the scenario of ‘ An American in Paris’ . But these directors adopted Hollywood’s imperative of ‘spectacle’ before meaning, and so placed the ravishing Gershwin scored choreography at the end of the movie. The dance is beautiful but not transcendental, rather it is a full stop, leading us no further towards an internality of vision. It not the charged psychic resonator that carries Vicky foreword into life into death.