The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror, Behind the Scenes

Published November 27, 2023

Limited tickets are available to catch The Red Shoes at Exeter Cathedral this Tuesday 28 November


The more ballet TV shows and films one watches, the more red pointe shoes one is likely to see. I thought painting ballet shoes red was a good ole dramatic device used to represent the classics: anger, passion, temptation, rebellion etc. That, however, changed when I watched Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Seeing Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) battle between her love for a young composer, Julian, and her passion for dance opened the catalogue of dance films that had been locked away in the back of my mind for years. Suddenly, one of the best scenes in one of my favourite ballet movies, Centre Stage (2000), started to come to life. Torn between two desires, Jody (Amanda Schull) performs a passionate routine in none other than bright red pointe shoes— a now obvious homage to The Red Shoes.


I cannot do a cabriole or grand jeté, but I love films about ballet because they are always about the pains and preciousness of dance, yes, but so much more too. Watching this classic film that inspired so many was nothing less than a treat, yet walking through an exhibition that transported you into the very world of The Red Shoes was something else entirely.


I was given the opportunity by the Exeter Phoenix and Film Hub Southwest to attend the BFI’s opening reception and private view of their new exhibition The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror. The exhibition was an unforgettable experience to say the least. I entered the BFI building alone, unafraid but unsure. To tell the truth, I considered the films of the 60s and 70s I watched to be old. Sure, I had studied a few early-mid 20th century films, but I was not a ‘Classic movies’ aficionado. As I stood in the long queue to get my wristband (which was red, of course), I marvelled at the woman in front me, who I later learned was costume buyer Dorothy Sarafoglou. She caught my attention because she was donned in a floor-length 150-year-old red Ottoman coat. We got to chatting and she soon, rather fittingly, became my red-coat guide who walked through The Red Shoes exhibition with me.


Much like The Red Shoes, the exhibition was a balance between fantasy and reality. At one point, I sat down at a recreation of protagonist Victoria Page’s dressing table from the film, decorated with period perfume bottles, hairbrushes and bouquets of red, hot pink and fuchsia flowers. I felt as if Julian and Lermontov themselves were about to pop out from behind a wall and make me decide between love or dance.


As I continued to walk through the exhibition, it was as if the film had ended, the credits had rolled, and I was being let into to the life of The Red Shoes beyond the screen. I read letters from Michael Powell, glanced at pictures of Moira Shearer as Victoria preparing for the ‘Coppelia’ sequences in the film, gazed at velvet ballet costumes, and manoeuvred through real-life ballet dancers stretching in their crimson leg warmers.

red shoes ex

Though enjoying the experience, I had many questions about this crazy ballet film world I had just whirlwind-ed my way through. In a brilliant turn of events, I had the opportunity to have my questions answered when I spoke with the set designer of the exhibition, renowned art director and designer Simon Costin:


Chloé: What from The Red Shoes inspired you the most when designing the exhibition?

Simon: I can’t say there was one particular thing, it was more the overall tone of the film. I wanted visitors to leave their world behind them the moment they reached the top of the stairs to the mezzanine and stepped through the entrance into the draped hallway.


Chloé: What was your favourite section of the exhibition to design and why?

Simon: That’s impossible to say because the exhibition was designed as a whole experience. Some of my favourite elements would be the newspaper figure, glimpsed behind the two-way mirror in the rehearsal room and the Pepper’s Ghost effect which reveals the shoes momentarily before clips of the film obscure them. It’s an old theatrical device which seemed to make sense to use, given the otherworldly mood that the film has.


Chloé: Which item was your favourite and why?

Simon: I think the Newspaper Man. Phoebe McEllhatton, who painted him, made such a beautiful job. There are several moments within the exhibition where we have endeavoured to recreate settings from the film, such as Victoria Page’s dressing table. The sequence in the film with the Newspaper Man was one that I found so enchanting the first time I ever saw the film.


Chloé: Why do you think the legacy of The Red Shoes has endured after so much time?

Simon: I think the Archers films were so unique then and now. As pioneers of English Magical Realism, they have never been surpassed. The ballet sequence is also one of the most breathtakingly magical ever made of a dance piece on film.


Chloé: And finally, how do you hope the exhibition impacts audiences, both long-time fans of The Red Shoes and first-time viewers?

Simon: I hope that the environment that we created helps to add several layers of make-believe to what is already a fantastical film, and to give the dozens of archival paintings and drawings a suitable backdrop for visitors to immerse themselves in.


Immersive, fantastical, playful; the team behind ‘The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror’ definitely delivered.

After weaving my way through rich blue curtains and multicoloured lights, and passed through the room of red walls, red flowers… I wondered: where is it?

Then… almost catching you by the surprise, the star of the exhibition appeared before my eyes: the sinister red shoes sat contained in glass box. Though paling with age, they still had their famous red pigment and stood erect as if Victoria’s feet were still stuck inside of them.

Victoria Page’s exit from The Red Shoes was traumatic to put it lightly. The good news for me was, when the blue curtains, bright lights and red walls came to an end, I safely descended the metal stairs, and my hot pink heels obediently led me back towards reality.

By Chloé Jarrett-Bell