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Ballet classic The Red Shoes comes alive at BFI exhibition

BFI celebrates the 1948 ballet romance classic The Red Shoes with a free-for-all exhibition (photos-Shaurya Thapa)

The 1948 British drama The Red Shoes gets a vibrant retrospective at the British Film Institute Southbank Centre with an exhibition celebrating the many talents involved in the ballet-centric tragiromance.

“Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.” says Boris Lermentov, the tough-as-nails impresario behind a majestic ballet production in The Red Shoes.

Perhaps this piece of dialogue sums up the very essence of the 1948 film helmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the directing/writing duo also known as The Archers.


Even if you don’t know much about ballet, #TheRedShoes is a perfect entertainer to charm you regardless, especially with a 17 min ballet sequence that’s brought to life with 1940s paintings and camera tricks. The @BFI has an elegant showcase of exclusive content from the movie’s art department.  Where: BFI Southbank, London When: Tues- Sun (until 7pm)  Entry: Free for all (tickets can be booked online)  .  .  .  #bfi #powellpressburger #ballet #redshoes #londonevents

♬ original sound – Dalai Thapa

What is the new BFI exhibition about?

The Red Shoes gets a fitting tribute at BFI with an exhibition titled The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror. Open to the general public for the entirety of December, the BFI showcase goes on till January 7.

The best part? Entry is free. You just need to book a timeslot on BFI’s official website. And if you need to watch the movie first before stepping into the world of The Red Shoes, the BFI cinema at Southbank also has frequent screenings of the Powell-Pressburger film.

One of the many red ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

Idyllic in its ambiance and rich in colour, the exhibition is worth visiting for fans of classic British cinema and ballet. Visitors can glimpse at hundreds of previously unseen production design sketches, lead actress Moira Shearer’s original costumes and ballet shoes, and even Powell’s handheld film camera.

Fans of the movie would be delighted to see the entrance resembling the door to a Ballet Lermontov production, referencing the dance company from the film.

Enter the Ballet Lermontov (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

Apart from the material artifacts graciously lent to the BFI by the late Powell’s wife and Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, The Red Shoes: Beyond The Mirror also features audio-visual presentations that display exclusive artwork from the film’s sets.

Michael Powell’s handheld camera (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

That’s not all as the exhibition also highlights the successive influence the film has had on other art mediums. For instance, costumes from Matthew Bourne’s recent ballet adaptation of the movie are also on display and so are press shots and vinyl records of Kate Bush’s 1993 studio album The Red Shoes (that also featured an accompanying short film based on Powell and Pressburger’s vision).

A still from the shoot for Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes music video (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

Why is The Red Shoes still relevant?

Decades before Daren Aronofsky toyed with horror and ballet in Black Swan, The Red Shoes played out with unprecedented intensity in its tale of a tragic ballerina’s struggle for artistic perfection. When an unexpected romance with an equally passionate music conductor gets in the way of her bleeding feet, she must choose between art and the real world.

Artwork from the film. (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

As integral as the titular shoes is the dancer wearing them, the real-life ballerina Moira Shearer in this case was relatively unknown at the time of filming.

Boasting a stunning 17-minute long surreal ballet performance inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the Powell-Pressburger feature’s cult status has only increased over the years

Spanish poster of The Red Shoes (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

Film journalist Pamela Hutchinson, who recently wrote a book on the film under the BFI Classics imprint, argues that the aforementioned ballet sequence stands out as one of the earliest examples of using the then-newly introduced Technicolor format to its full extent.

The film also opened opportunities for future British filmmakers to bridge the gap between the real and the hallucinatory. On the surface, The Red Shoes is a movie about a ballet company’s efforts at performing a rendition of the titular fairy tale.

But with Moira Shearer’s Victoria Page being bound to her shoes and the role that comes with it, The Red Shoes plays out a tragic real-world fairytale as well. This is why even though it wasn’t marketed as a horror, contemporary critics are quick to view it as an early work of high-art horror.

As a dance film too, The Red Shoes excels with Powell and Pressburger taking special care in casting actual ballet dancers from all over Europe to join Shearer.

The Red Shoes original release poster (photo-Shaurya Thapa)

The duo has obviously been a product of their times with some of their work not aging well, such as portions of Black Narcissus that feature the Indian actor Sabu as an exoticised black man, and The Thief of Baghdad which succumbed to Arab stereotypes of that era.

But something like The Red Shoes still endures even on moral terms, and its thematic and visual influences are still evident in films like Black Swan and regular appreciation from auteurs like Martin Scorsese.

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