Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes, 1948, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). Right: Ivan Boleslawsky and Victoria Page (Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer).


A WOMAN’S GLOVED HAND turns the pages of a program, aided by her male companion. The camera assumes their point of view. With this brilliant segue, directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger signal that we, the film audience, are these dapper patrons. Placed squarely in the theater, we begin our transition from watching The Red Shoes (1948) the movie to watching “The Red Shoes” the ballet. This gesture and its promise of a static, total vantage proves deceiving, as the astonishing fifteen-minute dance that follows immediately transports us to a place far beyond the proscenium arch.

Propelled by the dreamlike cinematography of Jack Cardiff and production designs of painter Hein Heckroth, the ballet becomes a proto-psychedelic projection of the desires and conflicts of its prima Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). She must choose between the love of a man (composer Julian Craster [Marius Goring]) and the love of her art (embodied by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov [Anton Walbrook]), partnering with both in her mind’s eye as well as in that of the camera. And still the bloodthirsty red shoes dance on, threatening to send Vicky leaping to her death (both on and off the stage).

The affectation of Powell and Pressburger’s metadrama has long been a point of contention, as if ballet is somehow cheapened by the impossible staging and cinematic tricks of the eye, and cinema likewise insulted by the cultural pretensions of ballet. But it is this hallucinatory magic made possible by the marriage of the two arts, in conjunction with the film’s portrayal of the grinding banalities of work (for the dancers are right back in rehearsal the next morning), that makes The Red Shoes true to the experience of creation. What is art if not part magic, part grind?

Cameron Shaw

A newly restored version of The Red Shoes is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. For more information, click here.