Seeing Red

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

At the intersection of passion, ambition, and love lay the red shoes. I arrived late to an appreciation of the Pressburger/Powell collaboration The Red Shoes, released in England in 1948 by the Rank Organisation. Give me The Sea Hawk and pirates, or Excalibur and King Arthur, I used to grumble. Don’t give me ballet!

But then in the late 1990s I did get exposed to ballet when I worked on a video tribute to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s retiring artistic director Patricia Wilde, who had been a George Balanchine ballerina. I learned then how cool ballet was, and how much discipline it took to make a dancer. Seeing vintage footage of Patricia Wilde as she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet left me slack-jawed. And here I was interviewing this great woman on camera about that career.*

Flash forward 20 years. I trespassed in the ballet world again recently as I sat writing Dutch Girl and learning about Audrey Hepburn’s aspirations for a career in dance—sat not only here stateside but also in the very theater where she once performed, the Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She studied for four years in Arnhem with a Dutch ballet mistress named Winja Marova and followed that with a stint in Amsterdam under Sonja Gaskell and then in London under Marie Rambert. All three are important names in European ballet—Gaskell is very well remembered and Rambert is a bona fide legend.

Ask Audrey at any point in her life what she aspired to be and she would say “a dancer.” She never answered “an actress.” Meryl Streep—there is an actress, Audrey would tell you. But even though Audrey had played Gigi on Broadway and then won a Tony Award for Ondine the next year, she claimed she faked her way through. She did what an instinct for survival told her to do and lived to tell the tale.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Tortured Lermontov punches a mirror.

I have to find out what Audrey thought about The Red Shoes, which is set in post-war London at a time when she studied under Rambert and began a brief but intense career as a chorus girl after coming to grips with the fact that her dreams of ballet would never become reality. The Red Shoes tells the story of the rise of ballerina Victoria Page as molded by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. He asks her at a critical point, “What do you want from life?” She answers at once, breathlessly, “To dance!” It was an Audrey moment.

I always find The Red Shoes, now digitally restored, an astonishing experience on many levels. It presents the world of professional ballet as muscular and visceral, one minute beautiful, the next nightmarish, and always obsessive; it saturates your eyes with Technicolor designed by director of photography Jack Cardiff; it lays bare the souls of a trio of characters who will break your heart for their spectacular individual talents and crippling human limitations.

I love Lermontov, played by Austrian-born Anton Walbrook. Lermontov never bends, never breaks. It’s his company and you will do it his way or get out! He rules ruthlessly, savagely, relentlessly. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of his art. If he retires to his apartment off-hours and talks sweetly to his cat, we don’t see it. He seems to live at the theatre and wields power at all hours. Once in a while he might seem to relent, but only as another way to skin a cat—as a different means to an end. [Note to readers: This is as close to me as it gets, people. I live for my whatever passes for my art, just like Lermontov.]

Then there’s Vicki Page, played by real-life-ballerina-turned-actress Moira Shearer. Vicki has it all under Lermontov, all she has said she ever wanted, ever dreamed of, and then loses her way by falling in love with composer Julian Craster. You just want to shake her by the shoulders and scream, “Snap out of it! He isn’t worth it!” But no matter how many times you watch The Red Shoes, she never listens.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The confrontation: Craster, played by Marius Goring, confronts Lermontov with his love for Vicki.

What a fascinating woman Moira Shearer was. She had been a Sadler’s Wells ballerina and a great rising star—until The Red Shoes. After that she claimed the traditional ballet world considered her a sellout for lowering herself to act, and her career never recovered. She continued to dance for a while and then tried acting full time, but neither worked out. Later on she would lecture and write and finally she died in 2006 at age 80. Boy, I wish I had known this woman.

One more link between Audrey and The Red Shoes: Fourth billed is Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Robert Helpmann of Australia. On May 9, 1940, Audrey sat in the city theatre of Arnhem and watched the Sadler’s Wells touring company featuring Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was a turning point in the life of an 11 year old, and she would tell the story of stepping onto the stage with these forces of British ballet to deliver flowers to ballet mistress Ninette de Valois.

Please forgive me for stumbling blindly through the first decades of life avoiding The Red Shoes. I’ve learned the error of my ways. Ballet rocks. And, for me at least, never does it rock harder than in The Red Shoes.

__________________________

*Thinking about the Patricia Wilde video caused me to dig it out and upload it to Youtube. It was my first job as a producer (co-producer, actually) and one of my first creative experiences in the edit suite working with post-production ace Kathy Kruger. This video hasn’t seen the light of day for 21 years, but it’s part of the historical record of American ballet and I believe for that reason it should be preserved.

4 comments

  1. Another interesting piece! I studied ballet briefly when I was a teen, but never had aspirations as a dancer. I just liked it and it was good exercise. Still later, I worked for a non-profit arts organization for several years, and we contracted with Mikhail Baryshnikov for a one-night only charity performance back in about 1984. He was such a phenomenal talent, and for a time reignited my interest in ballet. It is a demanding combination of athleticism, discipline, and art.

    Admittedly, “The Red Shoes” is not one of my favorite films, but perhaps I’ll watch it again with a different perspective after reading your article. I will also look for your video on YouTube.

    Regards.

    1. I love your perspective on this topic, Bonnie. You’ve been up close and personal with ballet. And I understand that TRS isn’t one of your favorites, just like it wasn’t one of mine. But revisiting it after my time with Audrey opened my eyes to many more qualities, like the byplay between Lermontov and his staff–some fear him, others coddle him, and still others toy with him, their interactions dripping with sarcasm. In fact, I can’t wait to give it another look.

  2. Hello Robert.
    I am always looking for something new to look into. Have only seen the barest amount of ballet which would be the Nutcracker a few times here in Cincinnati. So I have reserved the film from our library. Look forward to viewing it. Thanks.

    1. That’s excellent, Robyn. I hope it doesn’t let you down, but a word of warning–the first time I saw it, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. In repeated viewings I started to pick up on the subtleties. The way Pressburger and Powell open the film is very innovative for its day, and there is foreshadowing throughout. Please let me know what you think of it after you give it a look.

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