The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer’s ballet shoes and other artefacts from the making of Powell and Pressburger’s classic

Highlights from our exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror, including the ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer and on loan from Martin Scorsese’s private collection.

15 December 2023

By Claire Smith

Moira Shearer's red pointe shoes, lent by The Film and TV Charity © Photo Sarah J. Duncan/BFI

By the time they made The Red Shoes (1948), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were major figures in the story of British cinema. Under the unique, joint credit of ‘written, directed and produced by’ – and with a talented team of regular collaborators by their side – they created an unrivalled series of bold and beautiful films that continue to influence contemporary fields of art, design, music and dance. 

The Red Shoes is often described as the zenith of their filmmaking. Poised between artistic worlds, the film harnesses the power and beauty of ballet in film form, and brings all arts together as one.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale, The Red Shoes follows the story of Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page (Moira Shearer), whose life is transformed by her work at the Ballet Lermontov. Reality and fantasy blur as Vicky takes on the role of a girl beguiled by a pair of magic red slippers.

At just 21 years old, lead actor Moira Shearer was a successful principal dancer with Sadler’s Wells in London, but completely new to the world of film. Our new exhibition The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror follows her personal journey as she discovers the beautiful yet troubling world of The Red Shoes. 

Alexander Korda’s original vision for The Red Shoes

Our story starts in 1937. Leading producer Alexander Korda is searching for his next box office success. It will star his future wife, Merle Oberon. Industry rumours start to swirl of a film “derived from an old legend of a girl who wore red shoes which made her dance unceasingly”. 

Korda recruits a series of writers to bring his vision to life. Unhappy with each new version of the script, Korda finally abandons the project in 1939, and in the mid-1940s he sells the concept to Powell and Pressburger. They transform the story. Travelling to Andersen’s home in Odense, the writer-directors imagine a film much closer to the passion and violence of its Danish source.

London-based artist Michelle Williams Gamaker has created a new piece for the exhibition, exploring this early genesis of The Red Shoes story. Oberon (2023) responds to a photographic series in the BFI’s collection, taken at around the time that Korda was developing the script for The Red Shoes.

Oberon (2023)
Image courtesy of the artist, Michelle Williams Gamaker

Oberon had a complex relationship with her visual identity in these years. Make-up and lighting were used to mask the physical trauma of a car accident in 1937. These techniques also lightened her skin on camera. Williams Gamaker interprets the script as a love letter from Korda to Oberon, with Korda speaking the lines of Konstantin – an early version of ballet impresario Boris Lermontov – during a fictional make-up test. The artist reflects on the spaces of casting and screen testing beyond the archival photographs, and the relationships that extend behind the camera to the individuals (mostly men) who held Oberon’s career and her image in their power.

A life-changing role for Moira Shearer

Moira Shearer in costume for the 1942 Sadler’s Wells production of The Quest
Photographed by Anthony. Moira Shearer’s Archive
Moira Shearer’s pink pointe shoes, and note cards from her time at Sadler’s Wells
Moira Shearer’s Archive. Photo: Tim Whitby

By 1946, Powell and Pressburger had a clear vision of the story that they wanted to tell, and were ready to start planning The Red Shoes in detail. It would centre on the story of a young woman, Victoria Page, falling in love: with her art form and with a fellow artist. Powell and Pressburger were aware that its success would depend on the creativity of an established performer to occupy this central role.

In Powell’s eyes, Scottish-born dancer Moira Shearer was the very embodiment of Page. On the brink of international success as a dancer, she was initially hesitant to step into the world of film and declined the offer a number of times. Powell was insistent – the role belonged to Shearer. It took nearly a year, but the announcement of her acceptance came in 1947.  

The Red Shoes poster
© Park Circus/ITV. Source: BFI National Archive

The role would be both career and life changing for Shearer. She was catapulted almost overnight to global stardom, with a tour of the USA following the film’s box office success. Shearer’s image was used to represent the film internationally, and her burnished auburn hair was associated with the unfettered creativity of the scarlet slippers. 

The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror, BFI Southbank
Photo Sarah J. Duncan/BFI

The Red Shoes explores the world of a fictional ballet company – the Ballet Lermontov. During a residency in Monte Carlo, the company’s defining production is ‘The Ballet of the Red Shoes’: a reworking of the Andersen fairytale. Cast in the lead role of ‘The Girl’, Vicky Page finds that art mirrors real life. Her desire for artistic fulfilment is challenged when she finds herself falling in love with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and is asked to make a choice between the part she plays and the life she loves.   

The Ballet of the Red Shoes

Within the exhibition we invite you to step over the threshold between a real and imagined world, and into the shoes of Vicky Page. Music, art, light and dance magically combine to transport us, in Powell’s words, “inside the heads of two people who were falling in love”.  

Design for ‘The Ballet of the Red Shoes’ by Hein Heckroth
Estate of Hein Heckroth. Source: BFI National Archive

The famous ‘Ballet of the Red Shoes’ is presented as a series of ‘scenes’, drawing on the work of designer Hein Heckroth and sketch artist Ivor Beddoes, who, with the help of art director Arthur Lawson, helped to bring Powell and Pressburger’s vision to life. Just as the film is shot out of sequence, carefully pieced together in the editing suite, so too this room of the exhibition is structured thematically, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the filmmaking process.

Moira Shearer's red pointe shoes, lent by the collection of Martin Scorsese
Photo: Tim Whitby/BFI

The legacy of The Red Shoes

Powell and Pressburger’s totemic red slippers, imbued with a magic that inhabits their wearer, never truly stopped dancing. In interview, Shearer was honest about the mental and physical toll that the production took on her. But just as Vicky returned in the final scenes of The Red Shoes to perform for her company director, so too Shearer seemed unable to resist the possibility of another performance with Powell and Pressburger. She returned in both The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and in Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). In Shearer, not only the red shoes, but the Girl, danced on.  

When Shearer finally hung up her pointes, the magic of The Red Shoes went on to inspire generations of creative practitioners. In 1993, musician Kate Bush created her studio album The Red Shoes, followed by an extended music video, The Line, the Cross and the Curve. More recently, Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes (2016) brought together Powell and Pressburger’s story with the music of Bernard Herrmann. Victoria Page was danced by Ashley Shaw. With the support of Bourne’s choreography and Lez Brotherston’s designs, Shaw took on the demanding role to bring the blood-red pointes to life for new audiences.

Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page in Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes
Photo by Johan Persson

The free exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror is at BFI Southbank until 7 January. Book a slot.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, and on BFI Player.

The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December.

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