On a Saturday afternoon, when I was eleven, my Dad called me into the living room. Channel 13 was airing the film The Red Shoes, and he asked me to sit down and watch it with him. Up until then my cinematic world had been saturated with tv airings of The Planet of The Apes and The Poseidon Adventure, and weekend matinees of Oliver and Dr. Doolittle and Willie Wonka. There was nothing at all wrong with their images of upside down cruise ships and submerged monuments and pick-pocketing orphans and chocolate rivers and giant pink snails. But being asked by my artist father to sit with him and watch an old movie, a movie completely occupied by adults, (ballet dancing adults), was a turning point in my growing up that I didn't truly understand until I was an adult myself, and testing myself in my own version of a creative life.
The center of the 1948 film, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is the ballet of The Red Shoes itself. But the entire movie is so visually balanced and beautiful, something I'm sure I didn't notice when I was eleven. Part of this came from being young, and part from the limitations of our black and white television. I had the chance to watch it recently, and I couldn't get over the way each scene was composed, like a ballet on a stage but free of its confines. In London, where it begins, every set was balanced like a painting, the red stripe in a woman's dress echoed by roses in the corner, the red of a hat and crimson fingernails. Individual scenes were so elegantly composed, but they moved, and the actors and dancers and acting-dancers animated the film so well - ballerina Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook as the Diaghilev-inspired impresario Boris Lermontov, and the wonderful Leonide Massine, the great character actor of ballet.
Today I also see the kind of images that I've always been most attracted to, that may have had their beginnings in the living room with my Dad pointing the way:
Watch the newspaper drifting here, he said, as it turned into a sad pas de deux.
It was so sad, and so beautiful, and I felt, for what might have been the first time, how an abstraction from reality- a film, a dance - could set off emotions that I actually felt in my own life, in my eleventh year, on the edge of my painful teenage years: the fear of losing home, and its safety and love. The dangers and traps of the outer world, in the creative life.
I didn't become a true fan of ballet, though I became a devoted adorer of movies. And I didn't completely understand that day the main theme and battle of The Red Shoes, embodied by Lermentov:
Growing up seeing many examples of people balancing art and love very well negated that for me as a rule to live by, (though, to be honest, I have found myself making that kind of choice often and voluntarily. There is a basic truth within the movie, though theatrically heightened). What The Red Shoes was for me, ultimately, was a gateway. It was a rainy weekend when my father decided that I would understand and appreciate something that he, an artist and an adult, loved, that he thought enough of me to share it with me. That he showed me I was ready, for films, and paintings and ballet and theater, to start to take in both the lovely and the terrible, to appreciate not just the beautiful but the frightening and grotesque beauty in the body and face of the Shoemaker. How you need to know both to truly live."A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never."