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TitleDying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema
ISBN 139780813544670
CategoryArts - Film
Author
LanguageEnglish
File Size3.0 MB
Total Pages321
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Dying Swans and Madmen

Page 160

I F YOU C AN DISR EGA R D THE PLOT 145

This mattered in the narrative, too, as we will see, but “The Ballet of the
Red Shoes” itself had been planned and worked on continuously from the
moment Emeric Pressburger agreed to the “fabulous enterprise,” and it was
worked out in abstract form well before production on the rest of the fi lm
was begun. The ballet, in short, was to be a cynosure; its setting would be a
fi lm in which the ballet’s theme, that of Andersen’s fairy tale (more or less),
was duplicated. In his autobiography Powell even uses a paraphrase of the
fi ctional Lermontov’s description of the ballet to Julian Craster to describe
the fi lm’s plot.29 In other words, in Powell’s mind it was primarily the idea of
the “Red Shoes” ballet that motivated not only the fi lm’s unfolding but the
process by which the ballet was put on the screen, that the fi lm’s scenes both
presage the title ballet and are derived from it. Yet after the fi lm was released
and the critical assessments were in, Jack Cardiff , the fi lm’s cinematogra-
pher, wrote that everything in The Red Shoes except the ballet was made “to
ordinary fi lm standards.”30 Arguably Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
had never been interested in making “ordinary” fi lms, and Cardiff ’s remarks
may have been defensive. For it was not the central ballet as such but the
fi lm’s story, to which we will return in a moment, that proved to be its most
controversial feature.

The Search for the Perfect Film

In his autobiography Powell writes that The Red Shoes was “another step, or
was planned by me as another step, in my search for a perfect fi lm, in other
words for a ‘composed’ fi lm.”31 Although the terms perfect and composed do
not have the same meaning in other contexts, to Powell a perfect fi lm was
one in which cinema techniques, art direction, and performance all operated
under “the authority of the music.” The authority was given to the music by
the fact that it was recorded fi rst and the fi lm shot and edited to playback, a
technique also common to musicals but not so widely used in straight fi lms.
Powell’s fi rst attempt, he claims, at creating a composed fi lm is a twelve-
minute sequence in Black Narcissus in which “music, emotion and acting
made a complete whole, of which music was the master.”32 Although music
is important in many sequences in The Red Shoes and may have governed
the way they were arranged and shot, Powell does not specifi cally describe
them as composed sequences—other than, of course, the ballet sequences,
particularly the central ballet, which is the aspect of the fi lm that had most
interested him from the beginning. The “Ballet of the Red Shoes” was to be
something the likes of which no one had ever made or seen before.

The music for the “Red Shoes” ballet did not actually come fi rst, how-
ever. Hein Heckroth had made a large color drawing for each camera shot
and angle in the ballet, some 120 drawings in all. After Robert Helpmann

Page 161

146 DY ING SWANS AND M A DMEN

approved the drawings (and hence the camera shots), they were assembled in
correct sequence and Brian Easdale composed the music to fi t the completed
cartoon. The dancers performed to a playback of the fi nished score, recorded
already by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Much of this information is from a March 199 article in the trade
journal American Cinematographer. Although the article spends more time
describing 1,200-foot-candle 300 amp. water-cooled arcs and 225 amp.
Mole-Richardson “Brutes,” there is some discussion of the aesthetics of
fi lmed dance and, in particular, of the artistic merit of “The Ballet of the
Red Shoes.”33 The article maintains, for instance, that a new word, choreopho-
tography, had to be coined to describe “the fusing of the two separate arts”
(who might have used the term is not discussed; Cardiff himself came up
with another term, choreocinema), and it also discusses the “intentions” of
the ballet, that it includes “an impressionistic sequence in which the camera
mirrors the ballerina’s subconscious mind. As she dances, the characters in
the ballet identify themselves with the personalities involved in her own
life,” and the ballet “is so very defi nitely a cinematic ballet that it could
never actually be performed on a theatre stage”—as, indeed, is true of the
fi nished product. But several paragraphs before, the same article describes,
with no apparent sense of contradiction, a diff erent intention entirely: that
the ballet was intended to be fi lmed “without any cutaway shots, so that the
motion picture spectator could imagine himself actually sitting in Monte
Carlo Opera House watching it on the stage.”

One need not expect knowledge of the fi ner points of ballet in American
Cinematographer, a specialist trade journal (at one point it refers to the abil-
ity of dancers to jump high and calls it balloon rather than ballon), but this
particular contradiction is interesting because it occurs over and over again,
in other writing about the fi lm—including many of the anecdotal mentions
that began to appear in the United States while the fi lm was in production.
According to a June 197 New York Times item that seems to be the fi rst time
the fi lm was mentioned in the nontrade American press, for example, the
ballet was to be “surrealist,” but a month later the Times referred to Powell’s
directing the ballet “without any cuts to show that it is being performed in
a theatre” and that there would even be a few seconds’ “break in the picture
. . . when the cameras draw back at the end of the ballet, giving the movie
audience a chance to applaud if they are so minded.”3 Six months later,
Heckroth was describing the ballet as being “subjective as well as objective,”
that the ballet would “combine the Andersen story of the girl who had to
dance until she dropped with an impression of the thoughts passing through
the girl’s mind as she dances.”35

In the completed ballet there are actually two backstage shots that inter-
rupt the ballet and that return it from “surrealism” to “realism”: Vicky’s

Page 320

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ADRIENNE L. McLEAN obtained her M.F.A. in Dance as a Meadows Fellow at
Southern Methodist University in 1981 and, after an interval of “normal” life,
returned to school and acquired an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Film Studies
and American Studies from Emory University in 199. She is currently
a professor of Film and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at
Dallas and the author of Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood
Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 200), as well as the coeditor of Headline
Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal (Rutgers University Press, 2001). With
Murray Pomerance she is currently editing the Rutgers book series Star
Decades: American Culture/American Cinema. In addition to publishing in
fi lm journals such as Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, and the Journal of Film
and Video, she has also written for Dance Chronicle, The Dancing Times, and The
International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press, 1992).

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