‘The Red Shoes’: Dancing brilliance leading into obsession

Out of all types of performers, dancers probably endure the most physical punishment for their art. Their bodies are their only means of expression, and they must craft them ruthlessly as they pursue artistic perfection. The agony they endure must be intense.

Up to a point, of course. Every artist nurtures the hope of creating something sublime, and I’m sure dancers are no different. There is a film in theaters right now called “Black Swan” in which Natalie Portman plays an insecure young ballerina in a New York dance company. She has been given the lead in the company’s production of “Swan Lake,” and the film follows her maddening struggle to bring the character to life.

Darren Aronofsky, who directed the film, emphasizes the physical decay Portman’s character endures as she fights through endless rehearsal. This physical agony feeds the character’s psychological trauma, and she begins to lose her grip on what is real and what is imagined. Driving the story is her obsession with achieving perfection on stage, even if it costs her her sanity.

Aronofsky’s film is haunting, moody and electrifying, the work of a true artist exploring the sometimes skewed methods of another type of artist. What fascinated me was the way the film explores the thin line between hard work and total obsession; at what point is it healthy to pursue an ideal when your body can only take you so far?

In reading reviews of the film, another film critics have referenced frequently is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” (1948), which also explores the physical and emotional punishment of the ballet world. The film is by no means as dark as Aronofsky’s, but is equally perceptive about similar themes, examining the different sacrifices a dancer must make in order to perform at their best. Perhaps most interesting is the way Powell and Pressburger also explore the people around the dancers who influence their every move, forcing them to choose between their own well being and the pursuit of an ideal.

The film centers on a young dancer named Vicki Page (Moira Shearer) who, as the film opens, is trying to make her way in the London ballet scene. One evening at an after-ballet party, she encounters Boris Lermantov (Anton Walbrook), the powerful impresario of the Ballet Lermantov. Lermantov recognizes Vicki’s talent and commitment, and brings her into his company.

The film’s opening passages follow the day-to-day grind of ballet life. Lermantov is portrayed as cold and ruthless, a powerful man surrounded by people trying to advance themselves through his good favor. One of them is Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a young composer also trying to start his career in the ballet. Lermantov brings him into the company, and after Craster impresses him on an early production, he gives him an assignment; Lermantov wants to create a starring role for Vicki in a new ballet called “The Red Shoes,” based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a young woman is possessed to dance by the power of a pair of red shoes. He wants Craster to compose the ballet’s score, and Craster agrees.

The ballet is a huge success, cementing both Vicki and Craster as stars. But in the course of rehearsing, Vicki and Craster fall in love and decide to leave the ballet company to do their own work. Lermantov, who is obsessed with possessing Vicki, tries to come up with a way to engineer her return.

The film does have its problems. The opening hour, filled with scenes of rehearsal and artistic conflict between Lermantov and Craster,

meanders hopelessly. And even though Powell and Pressburger take so much time to set up the characters, the Vicki-Craster romance feels like it is just dropped in the audience’s lap as a plot convenience. The affection between the two is never established, and the few scenes they have together feel strange because the relationship hasn’t been properly explored by the filmmakers.

What does work in the film is the calculating nature of Lermantov. Powell and Pressburger find interesting ways to portray the character visually. In some scenes, he is the center of attention, standing in the middle of a room surrounded underlings there to do his bidding. During some rehearsal scenes, he stands off to the side of the stage, concealed by shadows, quietly exerting his influence on the show.

He is a puppet master, consumed by his need to control the people around him. He molds Vicki to serve his purposes, and when she strikes out on her own with Craster, he must calculate a way to bring her back. His obsession springs from a dark place; like many powerful men, his confidence comes from his ability to manipulate those around him. If he loses that influence, he shows weakness.

Powell and Pressburger are smart in how they establish Vicki’s motivation. In her scenes with Lermantov, she is consumed by the need to become a great dancer. In her young mind, that is all she will ever need to feel fulfilled. When she falls in love with Craster though, she realizes her life as a dancer isn’t worth the sacrifices she will have to make personally. Lermantov felt bonded to Vicki because of her artistic desire, and when he tries to bring her back to the company at the end of the film, she has to choose between her emotional life and her life as an artist.

The power of the film’s ideas is what ultimately brings it to life. Powell and Pressburger also do a good job of making the ballet world as intoxicating as possible. Most of the action leads to and from a sequence in the middle of the film where “The Red Shoes” ballet is actually performed. The sequence has captivating energy, moving from one setting to another as Shearer (a professional dancer before the film) dances vigorously. Up until this point, Vicki has only dreamed of performing to perfection, but here we actually see her do it. She moves with a kind of electricity in the sequence, dancing effortlessly through each move, as if in a dream. Watching her, you understand a dancer’s desire for perfection, and the lengths they will go to to achieve it.

Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

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