by Nancy Lorenz
“…All poetical imitators are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers,
unless as an antidote they possess the knowledge
of the true nature of the originals.
The Republic. Book X
My article on ballet this time is a little more academic. It was first published in The Coastline Journal in June, 2013, a journal which showcased the arts and humanities. Unfortunately, the journal has since gone defunct; therefore I can reprint my own article, The Philosophy of the Red Shoes here without permission. For anyone interested in ballet and philosophy, I think you will find this a good read.
This article is about ballet on the medium of film, and is written in three parts. Part One concerns The Red Shoes (1948), while Parts Two and Three are about the films, The Turning Point (1977), and Center Stage (2000) respectively. All three parts look to the question posed in the first film, The Red Shoes:
Can perfection be achieved in art and marriage or, must one be sacrificed for the sake of the other?
Even though family, hearth and home are utmost in our lives, I decided to explore the theme of the film with its “artistic question” through a philosophical lens.
The Red Shoes
For those who have artistic ability, I postulate that they must do their art. If they combine the artistic with the functional, the art is not given total devotion, and the end result will always be a terrible decision. While in theory this may sound artistically dedicated, dedication is not always enough to bolster the longing of the artistic soul. The practical inevitably conflicts with the desire to participate in art, and pulls those who long, from those who have the means or opportunity to create. Whether it be the realities of job, family life, or merely the inability to succeed against the interminable odds of the mass numbers of artists in the field, the artistic elements always reemerge within one’s soul, somewhere, sometime, refusing to be contained. Artistic passion is a drive that exists within the spirit of the artistic community, and emerges, if not in primary success, into secondary and tertiary representations of artistic expression. Artistic passion is the culprit here, and, this passion is the spiritual struggle within a soul to create art, and live at the same time within the material world.
There are three films that showcase and capture this drive of artistic passion – The Red Shoes (1948), The Turning Point (1977), and Center Stage (2000). The first film, The Red Shoes, bravely presented the concept of artistic passion versus the issue of domesticity, and dared to challenge the institution of marriage. In fact, one of the major points of the film, The Red Shoes is that artistic passion is like an evil spell, referencing the meta life of the main character, Victoria Page.
In this retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes, written in 1845, the young girl almost dances herself to death, because of the enchantment of the slippers, which take her away from her religious activities. In the movie, the young girl, throws herself on a train, making the “terrible decision,” rather than be split between the artistic, and domestic realities of everyday existence. In “The Red Shoes Ballet” within the film, a meta-narrative, it is very telling that the young girl dies, running back to the priest and the church. This “evil spell” then, is equated with artistic passion, the passion that drives artism, and the passion that Plato describes in his work on beauty and the world of forms, a tapping into the realm of passion and beauty that poets often romantically attempt to put into language, but cannot always quite capture.
Artistic passion is much different though from romantic passion. Whereas romantic passion can be fleeting, artistic passion is a way of life. Whether one is a musician, painter, singer, actor, writer, or a dancer, it is a grasping for beauty, that pure line of form, the harmonic synthesis of art, music, movement, artistic vision and ethereal flow. It is an all-consuming devotion that does not allow division within it. It is a taskmaster that pulls one spiritually into a realm closer to the divine, not to become divine, but to hover within or near its presence. It is a communion within the pure essence of the Greek idea of “beauty,” that will not release its grip on the psyche of the artistic soul. It is a part of one’s being, and cannot be denied.
The decision one makes to live in everyday society, however, dilutes the art, even if it is still pursued. Lermontov, the owner of the ballet company in The Red Shoes, tells Victoria this when he states, “You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never…” He predicts that Victoria’s performance will suffer when divided between domesticity and art, because he has seen it before. Nothing but total devotion to the art will claim its true aspiration to this beauty.
It is an artistic argument which defines the situation that Victoria Page encounters in the film, The Red Shoes, one that tries to detract her from the spiritual, and binds her to the earthly plane. This conflict occurs oddly enough, on a physical two dimensional piece of celluloid, yet gives us three dimensional conceptual images in story, on that flat piece of earthly film.
According to Andre Bazin, with the invention of the camera, “the artist was now in a position to create the illusion of three-dimensional space within which things appeared to exist as our eyes in reality see them” (167). Frame after frame of the film presents us with movement – the physical dance of The Red Shoes. The celluloid strip, however, also presents us with the spirituality of the art that exceeds the bounds of the physical realm of the film. Bazin writes that the “photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (169). He also writes that “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption” (169).
The performance of Moira Shearer, then, like other film performances is “embalmed in time” and the spirituality of the art exists conceptually on celluloid. The art, however, exists in my view for eternity in the minds of the spectators as well. Therefore, the frames of the ballet film draw us in through physical means (the celluloid), they ask us to suspend belief, and then simultaneously ask us to debate the difference between Victoria Page’s earthly and transcendent pursuit – an ideology. The film works the audience almost as hard as the dancers!
The Red Shoes is an example then of art imitating life, imitating art that is trying to exist concurrently with life. The representation is an artificial one, (film), reproducing the life of a ballet troupe, (life, once removed), and the representation of ballet, on stage, on film, (art reproducing art), and the conflict of that art – ballet and domesticity in collision – displayed on film. “Real things – wood, paint, fabric, sweat and muscular effort…” in the movie, according to Adrienne McLean, in her article, “The Red Shoes Revisited,” helps to create a realism, but the patina is then polished as the film “then creates on top of the represented art form, ballet – an art work that has very little to do with it [ballet] (4). Therefore, we have to see just how far apart the art exists from the originals of the philosophers, and how closely art in the film exists as embraced by the spectators.
As spectators we see the dancer in the ballet, Victoria Page, encountering difficulty as she adjusts to domestic life. When she falls in love with the composer of the ballet, The Red Shoes, she runs off to marry him, and takes a long vacation. The pull of art, however, pulls at Victoria and also at her composer husband as they both get up in the middle of the night to connect with their respective arts, ballet and music. Domestic tranquility is diluted in this scene. Victoria, in nightclothes, opens up her chest of drawers to gaze lovingly at her collection of pointe shoes, which include the red satin slippers. The gaze is telling as it demonstrates that ballet is in her blood, and the call to pirouette and pose in arabesque is equal to the pull of domesticity. Victoria caresses the shoes, and longing fills her soul, not for her husband, but for dance. Plato writes in Ion, that “poems are not of man or human workmanship, but are divine and from the gods, and that the poets are nothing but interpreters of the gods each one possessed by the divinity to whom he is in bondage (5). The taskmaster,”art,” is enchanting Victoria then once again, and she falls a willing, yet unwilling victim to its lure.
In similar fashion, her husband sneaks out of bed to compose at the piano. He is also pulled by his own artistic taskmaster. Here we have a marriage, divided by art, and one that will not be able to survive. The decision is a terrible one – art or marriage? Can they both give it up forever? It is a heartbreaking scenario that one cannot enjoy both fully, but as the owner of the ballet warned, mediocrity would set in, if both were enjoyed. The artistic question is posed regrettably as we witness the nocturnal search for artistic fulfillment, or fulfillment, in general, within a domestic setting. The fact that fulfillment would be found in art, equal to or greater than marriage, negates the unfortunately lesser fulfillment found in domesticity. The trouble with Victoria Page is that she finds equal fulfillment in both, yet both cannot be implemented well because career restrictions make little allowance for a home life, and, the home life is detrimental to the perfection of the art. Therefore, the artistic question is posed regarding whether the artist could pursue art along with domesticity, and the tragic result is that the answer was negative, with death as the result.
It is a moment of tragic knowledge when Victoria Page realizes this truth. As she rushes to the stage, dressed for her ballet performance in The Red Shoes, Victoria hears the train whistle, and stops dead in her tracks. The pause showcases her garish makeup that is meant for an audience, seeing her from afar. Here, however, we see the artificiality of the stage makeup in a film close up. The heart stopping moment of the train whistle, the whistle that takes her husband away, demonstrates the artificiality of the art, and we, as the viewer believe that she has changed her mind about staying with the ballet as we see her turn and run toward the sound of the train. We, as viewer believe that she has made a decision between art and domesticity, and that love will win out. The viewer is tricked though, as Victoria does not decipher the whistle as a reconciliation with her husband, but rather as an idea that will end the manic dispute.
She runs to the outside balcony of the theater, and throws herself on the train. She has made the “terrible decision,” since her tormented soul could not survive the pull of art and home. Victoria Page, however, is not the only character in the ballet world that has endured this dilemma. There are other casualties in this endless argument – the division of the spirituality of art versus the earthly plane of domesticity.
With the age of feminism we have to ask if this division is still valid, therefore we look to two newer films of the 1970’s and 2000s, respectively again, to ask the question – art or marriage? Does one have to sacrifice the spiritual for the functional in the search for perfection? Therefore, we also look to the characters in the films, The Turning Point, and, the updated version, Center Stage, to enter this dilemma of ballet versus domesticity, and we will see whether all of the characters were forced to make the “terrible decision” in one way or another…
… to be continued – The Turning Point…
Bazin, Andre. (2004). “What is Cinema? The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” in Film Theory and Criticism. ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, New York: Oxford University Press.
Lorenz, Nancy. (2013). The Coastline Journal. “The Philosophy of the Red Shoes.” [abridged] http://coastlinejournal.org/2013/06/14/the-philosophy-of-the-red-shoes/#more-2378 (now defunct without archives)
McLean, Adrienne L. (1988). Dance Chronicle. “The Red Shoes Revisited.” Vol. 11, No. 1. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 1988. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1567717.
Plato. (2004). The Republic, ed. George Stade. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Plato. (1998) The Critical Tradition. “Ion.” ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.
The Red Shoes. (1948). [motion picture]. England. The Archers. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040725/quotes,,accessed on February 18, 2009.
Special credit to Powell, Michael. Pressburger, Emeric. writers, directors, producers. aka The Archers.
The Red Shoes. Original flyer from the film by Ballerinailina (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fair use of photos in criticism of the film
August 5, 2016