The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror at BFI Southbank
In tandem with the British Film Institute’s season celebrating the work of filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Blue Room at BFI Southbank has put on a free exhibition devoted to their most enduring masterpiece, 1948’s The Red Shoes. A very early example of the use of technicolour that burst onto a grey post-war world, the film tells the story of enchanted and ultimately doomed ballerina Victoria Page and the toll her obsessive artistry takes on her. In a case of life imitating art, the filming was gruelling but it made a global star of its leading woman, 21-year-old ballerina Moira Shearer.
The corridor is given to artefacts surrounding The Red Shoes, like film posters and mementoes that belonged to Shearer, while the two rooms it leads to sweep you into the magical world of the film itself. The curation pays loving homage to the ravishing visuals of the movie. There are behind-the-scenes photos of the shoot in Monte Carlo in lightboxes that look like vintage luggage, costumes such as the discarded newspaper that becomes a dance partner for Vicky in the ballet sequence, and even a staging of Vicky’s dressing table groaning with vintage atomizers, stage makeup and powder puffs, complete with a picture of her lover pinned up on her mirror. Naturally, the red pointe shoes are there, small and faded but no less evocative.
The majority of the exhibition centres around the film’s singular, 17-minute scene of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, a sequence that still looks fresh and inventive 75 years later. The surreal touches lend it a timeless quality: it is a dance of the protagonist’s psyche, impressionistic and daring. The ballet and film are based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name about shoes that literally dance their wearer to death. The film is a melodramatic love letter to the creative impulse. When impresario Lermontov asks Vicky, “Why do you want to dance?” she retorts, “Why do you want to live?”
The artwork of designer Hein Heckroth is a gothic treat in and of itself, all melodramatic stances and anguished inflexions of the arms amidst a swirling backdrop of psychic storms. The fact that the ballet sequence remains completely true to the mood he created is a real testament to seeing quite nebulous concepts through to fruition. His images became an animation from which the choreography and score were built.
The second room shows the film’s legacy, with images from Kate Bush’s album of the same name and costumes from Matthew Bourne’s ballet. Weaved through the magic of the story are powerful themes of art versus life, creativity and stardom to which this charming free exhibition does justice.
The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror is at BFI Southbank from 10th November until 7th January 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.