The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

Emeric is often too easily accused of basing the principal male character of The Red Shoes on Serge Diaghilev, to which he replies: “There is something of Diaghilev, something of Alex Korda, something of Michael, and quite a little bit of me.”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Despite Emeric Pressburger’s qualificatory comments, there’s a lot more of the Ballets Russes in Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948) than first meets the eye. Or so I discovered, since I’d known about the film via my ballet-obsessed mother for years before I’d even heard of Diaghilev or Stravinsky. The most obvious connection is the presence of Léonide Massine who took the leading male roles in Diaghilev’s company following the departure of Nijinsky. He also choreographed Parade, the ballet which featured an Erik Satie score and designs by Picasso. The fraught relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky forms the heart of The Red Shoes: Anton Walbrook’s impresario, Boris Lermontov, is the Diaghilev figure while the brilliant dancer who obsesses him, and for whom he creates the ballet of The Red Shoes, is Moira Shearer as Victoria Page. That the dancer happens to be a woman is a detail which makes the film “secretly gay”, as Tony Rayns once put it. Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and fell out when Nijinsky married; in The Red Shoes Lermontov demands that Vicky choose between a life of art or a life of marriage to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). She chooses love but ends up drawn back to art, with tragic consequences that mirror the Hans Christian Andersen story. That story, of course, ends with a young woman dancing herself to death after donning the fatal shoes, a dénouement that’s unavoidably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

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Anton Walbrook as Lermontov.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Other parallels may be found if you look for them, notably the figure of Julian Craster who comes to Lermontov as a young and unknown composer just as Stravinsky did with Diaghilev. Craster’s music isn’t as radical as Stravinsky but The Red Shoes was already giving the audience of 1948 enough unapologetic Art with a capital “A” without dosing them with twelve-tone serialism. The film aims for the same combination of the arts as that achieved by Diaghilev, especially in the long and increasingly fantastic ballet sequence. This was another of Powell’s shots at what he called “a composed film” in which dramaturgy and music work to create something unique. The Red Shoes is a film that’s deadly serious about the importance of art, a rare thing in a medium which is so often in the hands of Philistines. In the past I’ve tended to favour other Powell and Pressburger films, probably because I’ve taken The Red Shoes for granted for so long. But the more I watch The Red Shoes the more it seems their greatest film, even without this wonderful train of associations. The recent restoration is out now on Blu-ray, and it looks astonishing for a film that’s over sixty years old.

Seeing as this week has been all about The Rite of Spring, here’s a few more centenary links:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation for its 100th Anniversary
• George Benjamin on How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music
Strange Flowers visits the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 2001
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

The Tale of Giulietta

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Watching Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) again at the weekend it occurred to me that the second act, The Tale of Giulietta, is the closest British cinema gets to the extravagant weirdness of Fellini Satyricon. Or it was until Velvet Goldmine… Lavish costumes and artificial decor, feasts, orgies, lust, betrayal, sorcery, a duel…it’s all there, even a spot of androgyny if you count Pamela Brown’s role as Nicklaus.

• Ludmilla Tchérina as Giulietta
• Robert Helpmann as Dapertutto
• Robert Rounseville as Hoffmann
• Léonide Massine as Schlemil
• Pamela Brown as Nicklaus

If this is on YouTube I don’t want to know. Do the artists a favour, watch their work on DVD.

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Continue reading “The Tale of Giulietta”

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

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Ida Rubinstein as Zobeide and Vaslav Nijinsky as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1913) by Georges Barbier.

Another great exhibition at the V&A, London, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes gathers a wealth of costumes, stage designs, photographs and ephemera—including some of Stravinsky’s manuscripts—to present a history of the legendary ballet company and their visionary impresario. For those who can’t get to London the museum website shows some of the items which will be on display, and there’s also a blog about the installing of the exhibition. The enormous frontcloth from 1924 based on Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach received a flurry of attention in the press here but my own attention was caught by the picture of Natalia Goncharova‘s even more enormous backcloth for The Firebird. The exhibition runs to January 9, 2011.

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Cover of Le Théatre showing Tamara Karsavina in costume as the Firebird, May 1911.

While we’re on the subject, a new biography of the impresario, Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen, was reviewed last week in the New York Times:

Diaghilev loved beautiful young men, and at a time when the fashion in ballet was to exchange patronage for sex, his company provided a bounty. Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars.

For a fictional (and necessarily heterosexual) account of those erotic and professional dynamics, I recommend Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) which not only has a central character based on Diaghilev but includes among the cast of real dancers Léonide Massine, dancer and principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes from 1915 to 1921.

See also:
Russian Ballet History | An archive and documentary site.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
The art of Ivan Bilibin, 1876–1942
Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009
Magic carpet ride
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky

Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009

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Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine; The Red Shoes (1948).

Jack Cardiff, who died this week, was one of the great cinematographers from the postwar era, a period when British cinema was raised for a time to world-class level. His three films for the Archers, aka Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, are masterpieces of Technicolor photography. He won an Oscar for one of these, Black Narcissus, while his photography in The Red Shoes includes Moira Shearer’s 18-minute ballet performance, one of the most strikingly surreal sequences in the whole of British film.

Cardiff taught himself about lighting from scrutinising the Old Masters and the Impressionists, and teaching himself to observe colour, shade and reflection in everyday things. “As they say, ‘Love comes by looking’, and I was looking all the time. That’s how you learn.” He picks up one of the dozens of books on Rembrandt that he owns and draws my attention to the exquisitely painted shadow of a nose in one of his favourite portraits. We look at the interiors of other Dutch masters – Pieter De Hooch, Vermeer. It was to the work of Vermeer that the starkly beautiful images of nuns he created for his Oscar-winning movie Black Narcissus (1947) were likened.

Elizabeth Lowenthal, The Independent, 1994.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Deborah Kerr, 1921–2007
Freddie Francis, 1917–2007