Life (and Death and Dance) Lessons From ‘The Red Shoes’

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What follows are edited excerpts from our interviews with dancers, ages 19 to 80.

Cynthia Harvey, 60

Artistic director, Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School; former principal dancer, American Ballet Theater

When Lermontov asks Vicky why she wants to dance, there’s a closeup on Moira Shearer’s gorgeous face, and she says, “Why do you want to live?” Those were absolutely the right words to describe what I was thinking at the ripe old age of 12.

Connor Holloway, 23

Corps de ballet, American Ballet Theater

It’s amazing how nothing has changed, but also everything has changed. Before a premiere [in the film], the overture’s playing, and they’ve put this whole lavish production together in three weeks. They’ve composed it and choreographed it from scratch, and they’re backstage still screwing the doors together. People are like, “I don’t know my entrance choreography!” “I don’t know my music!” And it just reminded me so much of A.B.T. and how we have this miracle of pulling things together in, literally, the last second.

Julie Kent, 48

Artistic director, Washington Ballet; former principal dancer, American Ballet Theater

The storyline is like a ballet of a ballet. So I sort of went along with: this isn’t real, obviously. I wasn’t expecting a wrapped-up ending, a legit ending. I was all ready for the “Swan Lake” ending: Jump off the cliff and who knows what happens? It was a dramatic, theatrical experience. I thought it was beautiful.

Megan Fairchild, 33

Principal dancer, New York City Ballet

When I was young and watching it for the first time, it already looked so dated. It’s like, oh my God, the technique has evolved. Ballet has changed so much, more than any other art form.

Courtney Shealy, 19

Corps de ballet, American Ballet Theater

I saw bits and pieces of “The Red Shoes” on YouTube. I grew up with “Center Stage.” When Ethan Stiefel and Julie Kent [Ballet Theater stars who are in “Center Stage”] started teaching me or I saw them, I was like, oh my gosh — what is happening? The A.B.T. film of “Swan Lake” was my classic go-to ballerina movie growing up.

Marcelo Gomes, 38

Principal dancer, American Ballet Theater; Julian Craster in “The Red Shoes”

My first dance film was “A Chorus Line.” I had more of a love for musical theater than for ballet. When I first watched “The Red Shoes,” I knew I was watching something important, but I thought it spoke more to a ballerina. And I was too young to understand the whole premise: Do you sacrifice your profession for love? Is there room for both of those things? It’s amazing that it’s a subject that dancers have dealt with their whole lives.

Christine Redpath, 66

Ballet master, New York City Ballet; former soloist with City Ballet

As a young person loving ballet, I thought, “Oh, that doesn’t happen in real life, but how beautiful.” I loved the dresses and the romance of it. Mr. B [George Balanchine, who ran City Ballet] was not at all like Lermontov. But there was some of that — the girls that he liked had to leave their boyfriends down the block. [laughs]

I feel the dancers nowadays are more open to the world outside. I was more of the nun type. I was totally devoted. Yes, I had a boyfriend, but my purpose in life was to dance. I do feel that I was more like Vicky than I ever thought I would be when I first looked at the film as a little girl. Or I became more like that when I actually was performing. The love and the passion grew exponentially.

Gillian Murphy, 38

Principal dancer, American Ballet Theater

It was my favorite film when I was a kid — I just loved Moira Shearer. It’s a classic tale about choosing your path in life, but luckily in this day and age, you can have a healthy life outside of dance and be completely dedicated and devoted and driven to dance. It’s not supposed to be depicting our everyday experience and it’s definitely melodramatic in parts, but at least it speaks to the seriousness of the profession and of the pursuit and the passion to dance. That is real.

Sara Mearns, 31

“Swan Lake” was more what I was watching as a child. Doing this project is what really got me into paying attention to the film. I couldn’t believe the amount of dancing Moira Shearer was doing. Even now, I don’t see anybody move that fast. Her footwork is crazy.

Also, what really got me was how detailed she was with her acting — she didn’t have to do a lot with her face. It was very subtle. She had a very wide-open face, so you saw everything that she was thinking. She wasn’t somebody trying to be a dancer — she was a legit, professional, big ballerina. The movie itself is over the top, but she didn’t play it that way. She did it honestly.

Allegra Kent, 80

Former principal dancer, New York City Ballet

I watched it before I came to New York City, and I had no idea how a company ran. I was sort of skeptical about the story in the beginning, about the cruelty of the artistic director [Lermontov]. But Moira Shearer: Her dancing, how exquisite! And also in that first time Lermontov sees her doing the “Swan Lake” variation — the way she used her head, the way she spotted, was so spectacular. She was a very, very great ballerina.

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