The similarities between Black Swan, which was released earlier this year, and The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and released in 1948, are obvious. Both tell the story of talented young women engaged as ballet dancers, both relatively unknown, who are suddenly propelled to the limelight as prima ballerinas, dancing the principal role in a new ballet for their respective companies. In Black Swan’s case, a bold new reworking of Swan Lake, and in The Red Shoes, a brand new composition also called The Red Shoes. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young girl given a pair of red shoes by a mysterious and sinister cobbler, which, as soon as she puts them on, possess her and make her dance uncontrollably until she dies from exhaustion.
Black Swan shows Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, who, having been a minor member of her ballet company, attempt to unburden herself of her self-consciousness and attain a near impossible level of excellence expected in her new role, while at the same time dealing with her fragile mental state which is exacerbated by her overbearing mother, herself a failed ballerina, played to an often frightening intensity by Barbera Hershey. In The Red Shoes, Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is a relatively minor dancer in the Lermontov Ballet company, and is thrown in to the limelight when her director, Boris Lermantov, chances to see her dance in a small, run down hall somewhere in London in front of a handfull of people. She is offered the lead in the new play, The Red Shoes, and it is a resounding success, as proudly exhibited to the viewer in a magnificent, and completely hallucinatory and Fellini-esque fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film.
Nina struggles with her new role; she is precise in her delivery of the part of Odette, the angelic White Swan, but, in the eyes of her director, Thomas, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassell, passionless, restrained, and lacking in the sexual energy he sees as essential to the part of the Odile, the Black Swan. Vicky’s adaptation is smoother, although conflict soon manifests itself when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the young, up-and-coming composer of The Red Shoes.
Both women suffer the machinations of manipulative directors; Leroy is passionate and lecherous towards Nina, whereas Lermontov is an ice cold Russian exile, who fires Julian from the company once he finds out about their relationship, believing Vicky’s love for him compromising to her art. Vicky leaves also, in solidarity with her lover, leading Lermontov to sink in to a depression, believing no one else capable of dancing The Red Shoes but Vicky. She eventually returns, without the knowledge of Julian, and agrees to dance. However, moments before she is due to go onstage, Julian turns up, and, incensed at her betrayl, demands she choose between their love and the ballet. She chooses the ballet, he storms off, but as she is walking down the long corridor to the stage, wide-eyed before the camera, the red shoes she is wearing, representing her conflict between love and art, carry her off, and she runs out of the building and commits suicide by jumping from a balcony. In an equally dramatic parallel, Nina is broken by her fragile state of mind, and unwittingly stabs herself during the intermission of the opening night, then completes the second half to rapturous applause, and dies on stage.
The material likeness of both stories are obvious, but what is more important is the believability of the principal characters in their adaptation from obscurity to the unbelievable pressure of performance, and as both films adopt the familiar story-within-a-story formula, attention must also be focused on both Natalie Portman and Moira Shearer in their performances. The idea is to see the ballet in the film through their eyes, as we are seeing the film through our own eyes.
Black Swan opts for a simple psychological thriller angle, showing Nina’s struggle with her role through the prism of her faltering mental health. Vicky’s adaptation to her role stands on Moira Shearer’s performance alone, without the aid of any psychological gimmickry, and in many ways that is enough. Moira Shearer herself was a professional ballet dancer, a rising member of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, and The Red Shoes was her first film. It shows, and, as brilliant as she is, her nervousness and innocence is obvious, especially during conversational scenes, where she spends most of her time staring in to space when she is both listening and talking. Her nerves and earnestness are translated perfectly through Vicky, who through a quiet, although shaky at first, dignity confronts her own impending stardom. In comparison to this genuine manifestation of both a character and an actor/dancer’s response to art, in both Vicky Page and Moira Shearer’s response to ballet and film, the conflict of Black Swan seems artificial and forced, resting on the psychological angle alone.
The Red Shoes was a bold film for the time, a jump in to near fantasy when realism owned post-war cinema, and was a testement to art over real life. As Michael Powell later reflected,
“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”
In the tragic endings to Black Swan and The Red Shoes, both Nina and Vicky lose their lives to their art; Nina after sacrificing her mind for it, and Vicky after sacrificing love.
As a side note, it is interesting to note the response of the ballet world to both films. Upon its release, The Red Shoes was celebrated as an accurate portrayl of ballet, as well as during filming when several ballet critics were given access to sets. With its later popularity however, it began to be criticised as portraying ballet in a cliched and negative light. The attacks often bore a resemblance to the condemnation by other art forms of early cinema, laced with ignorance and disdainful of the medium as a whole, which, in 1948, seems a bit of a stretch. Moira Shearer herself later attacked the film also, although this seems mostly from exasperation with the technical side of filmmaking; during the dance sequences she was only allowed to dance for short periods at a time, often having to repeat the same thirty seconds of dance continuously, and it took some time for her to adapt back to the structure and technique of a full ballet.
The response from ballet to the release of Black Swan was, by comparison, caustic. Critics saw it was portraying dancers in a negative light, as ruthless, selfish, and egotistical. Not entirely unfair claims, although I have no idea how cut-throat ballet dancers might be having spent little time with any, but it is no stretch to imagine competition in companies to be fierce. Reactions weren’t helped by the portrayl of Nina by a non-ballerina, and the dance scenes were attacked as amateurish (which, by their own definition, they obviously were) and the subsequent claims by a professional dancer to have performed some of the dance scenes only added to the controversy.
As a modern art form, ballet is distinct in the way it seems to be disdainful of publicity, and often actively hostile when it receives any. Following the reaction to Black Swan, various following articles criticised the ballet world for its insularity. These observations were not unjustified, for example, in an age where nearly anything popular to someone has an in-depth article on Wikipedia, the page on ballet, for a major form of artistic expression, is surprisingly short, and goes in to little historical or technical detail. In comparison, the page on the Basque variant of the sport pelota, hardly a pursuit with the same worldwide appeal, is over double the length. But maybe this is a positive attitude for ballet to take, and a perceptive one.
Those in ballet know it is never going to have widespread appeal today, and instead of compromise itself to the cheapening effects of mass culture in an attempt to broaden its appeal, as so many other art forms have done, it closes itself off, and retains its integrity. In refusing to debase itself to a lowest common denominator of pure entertainment value, it refuses to even engage in the arguement on the terms defined by those of mass culture, that of entertainment value itself. In this way its insularity is positive, and it can remain a pure art form. Of course, the attention ballet has received from the recent release of Black Swan will be unwelcome to many of those who wish it to remain anonymous from mass culture, and they will be hoping the momentary popularity will fade like many Hollywood-inspired fads.