On its 75th anniversary, the transformative wonders of The Red Shoes continue to dance its way into my heart
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the October 20, 2023 edition of the Seattle Gay News.
I am not a dancer. While I played the trumpet throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I avoided marching band like the plague. Trying to keep time and play while parading in convoluted formations was never my thing. I couldn’t get the hang of it. While I did not have two left feet, I was far more at home shuffling across the basketball court or hustling around the track oval than I was juking, jiving, and stepping in synch while trying to perform “25 or 6 to 4,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” or the theme from Superman.
And yet, even as a teenager, and even though the 1948 classic was considered “old” when I finally got around to it in the late 1980s, I was as obsessed with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes as any twinkly-eyed ballerina wannabe. Sure, my mom and grandmother loved it, but me? I was the football-playing roughneck with a crewcut. This was a film that felt dangerous to possess.
Looking back, that level of terror that someone would find my VHS copy and think the worst of me does feel silly. Nevertheless, The Red Shoes was the one title I didn’t want anyone to know I adored. There was something about it that felt too personal. It was like I was so intimately connected with it that if my parents or friends were to know it was in my collection, they would begin to wonder about me. My sexuality. My gender. All of it.
Why? What is it about a story revolving around an ambitious ballerina who finds herself torn between two men — one the seductively iron-fisted director of a world-renowned dance troupe, the other the young, up-and-coming composer who falls desperately in love with her — that shook me senseless?
Powell and Pressburger’s massively influential musical melodrama is an engrossing tale of transformation and artistic expression, and watching it felt as if the filmmakers were speaking to me and me alone. I was lost in their catastrophic spectacle, fearful that I’d never be who I knew I was, thus forced to live vicariously through a performer who gave everything she had to step on a stage and dance The Red Shoes.
I’d already become enamored with fantasies like Labyrinth and Legend by the time I’d watched this one. Considering their genre pedigree, it was easy to conceal how much I related to and envied their female protagonists: Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah Williams in the former and Mia Sara’s Princess Lili in the latter. But both contained eerily similar dance sequences in which their heroines are hypnotized by a bewitching gown and suddenly find themselves transforming into someone new when they slip them on. I was understandably transfixed.
With The Red Shoes, here was a story with a similarly relatable main character who sees her innermost visions of who she wants realized in ways she never imagined possible. It took determination and hard work, yes, but the dream still became a reality, and while the blood-red ballet slippers of the title are a metaphor overflowing with deep, complex meaning, this was still a case where an article of traditionally feminine clothing was the gateway to something difficult, maybe even painful, yet also still extraordinary.
I feel like even those who have never heard of this drama still have a rough idea of the story. Its plot, semi-novel for 1948, has been retold so many times and in so many ways since its original theatrical release in October of that year. But central to it all is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a bit player in the Lermontov dance company, who aspires to become a prima ballerina. When its director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) decides to take a chance on the young woman, this becomes both a blessing and a curse. He instructs the equally determined Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a rising composer, to craft a new ballet for Victoria based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”
Powell and Pressburger, also known by their production company moniker of The Archers, were no strangers to creating instant critical and audience favorites. By the time this picture had been released, they’d already brought forth One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus. Each one is a classic. All of them are incredible.
The Red Shoes was something different. It took on a life of its own, convincing generations of youngsters to enroll in ballet classes, even with its tragic conclusion of obsession and damnation colliding head-on with a speeding train. It is referenced repeatedly in everything from A Chorus Line to Looney Tunes. Heck, Gene Kelly made everyone in the cast and crew of An American in Paris watch it multiple times while they worked on that Academy Award winner for Best Picture.
That’s the historical stuff, and there have been countless pieces written on this film’s significance as it relates to dance in general (and ballet in particular). For me, though, it has always been rooted in my psyche for the way it looks at gender roles and sexuality. It has captivated me for how it analyzes how far many are willing to go to become someone entirely new and fill a role far different than the one society specified. I didn’t relate to Victoria Page because I wanted to dance like her; I related because I wanted to be her.
In a ratty, nondescript box under my bed was a hidden trove of items I felt my parents could never see: Some clothes I’d secretly purchased from the Goodwill and Value Village. Shoes I’d gotten at the mall under the pretext they were for a Halloween costume. Makeup I’d been stockpiling, most of it snagged from the bathrooms of girls I knew from school (or their parents).
On top of them was that VHS copy of The Red Shoes. No one knew I had it. No one knew how many times I had watched it. No one knew that my fascination with the film had nothing to do with vibrant 20-minute ballet around which the entire story centered.
Yes. Powell and Pressburger’s melodramatic musical gem is a titanic achievement that will enthrall and fascinate new audiences for generations to come. While I love it for all the obvious reasons — the fantastic performances, the stunning cinematography, the magnificent dance sequences, the immaculate script, the flawless direction — my connection will always be personal.
In its most famous dialogue passage, Lermontov asks, “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?” responds Victoria, answering a question with a question.
While I still can’t dance, I live because I made the choice to spit in fear’s face and move forward with my life openly and with confidence and self-determination. The Red Shoes showed me I could transcend who I was born as and become who I knew I was supposed to be. This film inspired me as a teenager, and it continues to do so today, each viewing a revelatory celebration of life, death, and rebirth I shall forever treasure.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, The Red Shoes is available to own on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD from the Criterion Collection. It is also available to stream on the Criterion Channel.