New BFI exhibition celebrates 75 years of The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror
BFI, Southbank, London

It came as quite a shock to realise that it is 75 years since Powell and Pressburger’s ballet movie masterpiece The Red Shoes was released. That means that we are the same distance from it now as the cast were from Diaghilev’s birth, and the year Dégas painted The Dance Foyer at the Opéra. In all that time, no one has ever made a ballet film as good.

The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror exhibition at the BFI certainly whets the appetite for the forthcoming screening of the re-mastered film. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. It’s well worth dropping in on.

Exhibition view from The Red Shoes: Beyond The Mirror
Photo Sarah J Duncan / BFI

The exhibition in fact starts ten years before the film with the screen tests of Merle Oberon in the version that Alexander Korda had planned. Oberon was to marry Korda two years later and the tests hint at a much more melodramatic version with the ballet director being even more of a Svengali figure than Lermontov. It is in many ways uncomfortable watching and reminds one of how objectified actors can be in both screen tests and finished films.

Poster for The Red Shoes
Photo ITV Studios / BFI National Archive

There are a few photographs from the location filming of the Powell and Pressburger version in Monte Carlo and references to other works that it has inspired. The curators have made an effort to frame it all in a facsimile of the sets.

Costumes include a stunning black velvet dress that shows just how tiny the 21-year-old Moira Shearer was when she made her film debut, although it is not from the film and was loaned to the exhibition by her daughter. There are also a few mementos that Shearer herself kept and a couple from Powell and Pressburger; and previously unseen hand-illustrated original production and costume designs, realised and unrealised.

There is an intriguing link to Noel Streatfeild who published her first book Ballet Shoes, in 1936. Streatfeild used the then 10-year-old Shearer as an inspiration for the character Posy when she paid a research visit to Flora Fairbairn’s studio shortly before Shearer moved on to train with Legat.

Without doubt, the jewel in the crown of the exhibition is the film of the sketches of the ballet sequence, complete with a subtle rendition of the soundtrack. The sketches were made as a guide as they were being filmed, and have been collated by the BFI.

The exhibition also includes costumes and props from Sir Matthew Bourne’s 2016 adaptation and projections that bring the film into the space. A new installation created by UK video artist Michelle Williams Gamaker, Oberon responds to the casting of Merle Oberon in the unrealised She Had to Dance (1939), GB Stern’s very early version of The Red Shoes, as represented through items in the BFI National Archive collection. Also on display are behind the scenes publicity photographs for the Kate Bush self-directed featurette, The Line, The Cross and The Curve (1993), made to tie in with her iconic album The Red Shoes, inspired by the film.

Exhibition view from The Red Shoes: Beyond The Mirror
Photo Sarah J Duncan / BFI

…and yes, the exhibition does include a pair of Shearer’s red pointe shoes, now somewhat discoloured and faded. They have been loaned by Martin Scorsese and are signed by Shearer, Helpmann and Massine.

The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror is at the BFI, Southbank, London until January 7, 2023. Admission is free but it is asked that timed entry slots are booked.

The exhibition is presented as part of Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, a major BFI UK-wide film celebration of one of the greatest and most enduring filmmaking partnerships in the history of cinema.