Some months ago I went to see The Red Shoes—a “dazzling new restoration,” the ad says, but that was only an excuse for revisiting a film that I adore and whose dialogue I can recite verbatim. It inspired my lifelong anglophilia and balletomania, and it is tragically romantic. Short of an entire basket of scones eaten at one sitting I’m not sure there is anything quite as divine.
I have never lived in England for any length of time, or even visited for more than a couple of weeks, but, probably because of books, I became enraptured with the culture early in life. I’m not just talking good books (Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster…); I’m talking a certain obscure juvenile series by Lorna Hill, written in the 1950s (only a few years after The Red Shoes opened) and set in London and Northumberland. Volume 1 was called A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (the original company that evolved into the Royal Ballet), and it introduced me to a fascinating array of words like flat (instead of apartment) and jumper (instead of sweater). Ballet students took the tube, not the subway, to classes; ate kippers for breakfast; and went to the loo when nature called.
I yearned desperately to buy grey flannel jackets at Harrod’s, use grips (barrettes to you) on my hair, even walk through the ubiquitous rain and fog and probable grimness of the postwar world. I didn’t manage to go until I was 17. By that time, the early 1960s, Swinging London was teaching the world a new rhythm. I loved Mary Quant, Twiggy, Julie Christie in Darling; and, after a period of haughty resistance—at first I was loath to join the gangs of fans—the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
It was a great time to be young, to wear miniskirts and white tights and pale lips and deep bangs. But it was the England I didn’t know, the England of wartime and immediately afterward (or my idealized version of it), that really grabbed me. A Hard Day’s Night was cool, but Mrs. Miniver made me cry: heroines in tweed skirts and twinsets who faced the Blitz, the rubble, the rationing, and above all the loss of human life with dignity and courage.
The Red Shoes was made in 1948, and though ostensibly contemporary, it has the flavor of an earlier, less damaged England (Boris Lermontov, the film’s Russian impresario, is quite clearly based on Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, who died in 1929). It is a fantasy, not really about a place at all, unless that place is the stage. It is about an idea: love versus art.
Victoria Page, the doomed heroine, dances to live and lives to dance, yet when she falls in love with composer Julian Craster, she is ultimately forced to choose: wife or ballerina. That dilemma may seem old-fashioned these days, when wives and mothers are dancers, writers, airline pilots, heads of state . . . and yet I think it is still far more difficult for women than for men to give themselves entirely to a creative activity. The norm is for a man to put his profession first; it is not so clear that a woman should or would do the same. We may not throw ourselves under a train as Vicky does in The Red Shoes, but many women might well grieve for the potential artist inside that has died for want of time and attention.
My art is writing, not dancing (the sks are more private because I work at home, usually without collaborators), but since I was quite small I have longed to live in the pure and rarefied world of ballet. To me dancers are like rock stars—better than rock stars. A well-known danseur lived in my apartment building for a while; I would blush and stammer when he and I happened to be in the elevator together.
Certainly there is no flamelike talent smoldering within me, or I’d know by now: Since the age of 35 I’ve been taking ballet classes regularly, by now four or five a week. It’s not so much to feed a creative urge as to realize another aspect of myself—the part that moves to music, the part that attains a certain grace. At the age I was reading those Lorna Hill books, I was also poring over glamorous black-and-white studio photographs of dancers like Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Margot Fonteyn, and (naturally) Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes’s redheaded heroine.
The feet of these goddesses were always encased in satin pointe shoes, as if walking on their soles like ordinary folk wasn’t elevated enough. I dreamed of those shoes; lately I have decided to give pointe classes a try, testing and perhaps transforming my 65-year-old feet and in the process growing a few inches to make up for the natural shrinkage of the last decade (“But I’m 5’6”!” I wailed in the doctor’s office. Odd to worry about my height rather than my weight.)
Am I crazy? No, just obsessed. Ballet is hard work, mentally and physically; I’m neither particularly good at it nor especially flexible, and sometimes I think it’s pretty ridiculous, at my age. Yet it nourishes me in a way that my more sedentary activities do not.
I think there is a kinship between the anglophilia and the balletomania. It’s about passion being contained and filtered by a gracious and traditional code of behavior. I suppose it’s a form of sublimation. While at their worst both the rigid class system and the institution of ballet are repressive, elitist, petty, and cruel, at their best English culture and classical dance are sublimely civilized. The tension between rapture and structure, between the exalted and the everyday, is, for me, what makes art matter.
Toward the end of the film, we see Vicky coming to class. It is the morning after her triumphant debut in the Red Shoes ballet, but she isn’t lolling in bed; she is ready to work, dressed in postwar improvised classroom gear: pointe shoes, no tights, shorts, and a top tied around her nonexistent midriff. There is a restrained, affectionate acknowledgment of her performance by her partner and the ballet master—she is congratulated for not letting success go to her head—then a businesslike return to pliés and piano music and the usual studio routine.
I will have no curtain calls or bouquets. But the ritual, discipline, and community—my body saying Oh, yes, there it is again—I have all that. It keeps my back straight and my gaze firm and my neck long and my weight forward, toward the future. The dance goes on.