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Legendary Ballet Russes Makes it to the Silver Screen
“What would you call ballet?” asks Boris Lermontov, director of the Russian Ballet in the film The Red Shoes. “For me,” he continues, “it is a religion.”
Before Center Stage and Save the Last Dance, there was The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—the classic 1948 film that kicked off the third event of the Harriman Institute’s “Celebrating the Ballets Russes” program last Tuesday.
An ode to the ballet and the music accompanying it, The Red Shoes was the ideal complement to the program, which is also spearheaded by the Barnard music and dance departments. The semester-long series features films, presentations, lectures, and exhibits relating to various aspects of the Ballets Russes, an early 20th century ballet company based in Paris and under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev. A testament to the Ballets Russes’ influence outside of dance, only one ballet performance is included in the program: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Fawn on April 25. Marking the centennial of the Ballets Russes, The Harriman program is a celebration of one of the greatest dance companies in history.
This Thursday, the Harriman Institute will present an evening of “Diaghilev-era Russian Dancers on Film,” and will play two films: the 1916 feature The Dying Swan and Victor Bocharov’s documentary Belated Premiere, continuing a series of on-film reflections on the Ballets Russes. Other upcoming events include an art exhibit on display from March 31 to April 22. Curated by Regina Khidekel, it will show 25 works by Russian artists depicting and paying homage to the Ballets Russes, with a reception to follow on April 16. Lynn Garafola, renowned Barnard dance professor and one of the organizers of the program, said, “The celebration is meant to show some of the legacy of that company [the Ballets Russes].” This legacy certainly comes through in
The Red Shoes, a film that glorifies ballet and the dance medium, while also providing convincing psychological drama.
In the film, an ambitious American socialite who believes “to live is to dance,” is discovered by a dictatorial director of a world-class ballet company. She soon falls in love with the rising composer for the company.
Together the three work on The Red Shoes, a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, in which a girl puts on a pair of magical red dancing shoes that never allow the wearer to stop dancing. But soon life begins to imitate art, and the woman is unable to stop dancing herself. She must choose between her all-powerful director, who can turn her into the greatest prima ballerina of all time, and the man she desires.
In The Red Shoes, art and life are blended beyond recognition. Surrealistic special effects make it clear that The Red Shoes is an extremely psychological drama, based not only on ballet but also obsession. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, obsession becomes the protagonist’s downfall.
Even with its intense and poignant melodrama, The Red Shoes’ talented dancers make the movie enjoyable to watch. Garafola was all smiles after the film ended: “There are some wonderful dancers! And [star] Moira Shearer was just radiant.”
Even the students in the audience were pleased, and seemed to share professor Garafola’s enthusiasm about dance. Lindsey Staley, BC ’10, commented, “It’s fun to see such an old movie! I’m taking two dance classes, and it’s great to see how dance has evolved. It’s a classic dance movie.”