Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was very pretty and delicate, but in summer she was forced to run around with bare feet, for she was so poor, and in winter, to wear very large wooden shoes, which made her little feet quite red. The girl was called Karen.
On the very day her mother dies, a farm woman wraps strips of red fabric around Karen’s heels, soles and toes, but the kindness is brief. They were certainly not intended for mourning, but she had no others, and wearing the red shoes, she follows the horse-drawn cart that holds the body for burial.
As Karen begins to pivot from the sun forever, a large old carriage drives up with a large old lady sitting inside. The old lady feels compassion for Karen and adopts her. Karen believes all this happened on account of the red shoes, but the old lady thinks they are horrible, and she has them burned. She takes Karen to buy a fancy pair of shoes. Karen spots a pair that are candy cherry red gloss satin with bows. The shoemaker says they were made for the child of a count. She chooses them instead of the black ones she was supposed to.
She’s nearly blind, she won’t notice, Karen thinks about her new mother.
So happy with her new flair, Karen struts to the steeple where she sees a soldier with a wonderfully long beard, more red than white. He tells the shoes, Never come off when you dance.
When Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Red Shoes” in 1845, he named Karen after his despised half-sister—a warning to prideful girls everywhere.
Karen sneaks out, slips on the shoes, and flits over to the ball. The streets drunk- sway with people singing and clinging to each others’ necks. There’s a dancing bear. Karen swings around with soldiers, dock men, briny netsmen, and financiers. She has never danced so well.
But she can’t stop. When she wants to dance right, the shoes go left. She dances down the steps and into the street and out the city gate. The shoes force her to dance straight out into the gloomy wood. Karen is pouring sweat. She’s scared.
It was the peak of summer when I followed the hearse. I was scared too.
Meadowlands and oil rigs were sunlit orange. Low tide traffic on the Turnpike typical of a Sunday afternoon. Fat motorcycles trailed behind us, their lion’s roar welcome. My red hair rested on the glossy black tinted window. We drove past the Savarin factory. The kind of coffee my father drank. It tastes burnt to me now. The black car stopped at the church on top of the hill.
My red dress had ranunculus buttercups printed in white. I can wear this. A burial is outside, I thought. I chose it instead of the black one I was supposed to. I was 12.
“The Red Shoes” was made into a ballet, naturally. And then, in 1948, a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about a company that stages that ballet. They cast flame-haired Moira Shearer to play Victoria Page, the ingenue who dances the lead role, Karen. Shearer was a dancer in the Sadler Wells Ballet, pirouetting around Europe with Margot Fonteyn, the infamous prima. Sadler Wells danced night after night for the British soldiers. Most of the cast and crew of the film were involved in the war, either dancing, fleeing, or fighting. There’s always a specter of death in The Red Shoes.
Powell: “When it came to that devil, Boris Lermontov, there was no question in our minds as to who should play him, and give a performance filled with passion, integrity, and, yes, with homosexuality.”1
Anton Walbrook, who plays the company director Mr. Lermontov, traveled to Hollywood in 1937 and never returned home to Austria. He was gay and Jewish. From his sun-drenched California vista, Walbrook learned of Hitler’s rise to power and vowed to change his name forever. It used to be Adolf. Walbrook was not the only queer actor in the film. Lèonide Massine and Sir Robert Helpmann were both openly gay. The actors present their queerness in the film for those who want to view it, and it was easily ignored by those who didn’t.
Hans Christian Andersen was also rumored to have had affairs with men, in particular with the Grand Duke of Weimar. In his diary, he wrote: “The Hereditary Grand Duke walked arm and arm with me across the courtyard of the castle to my room, kissed me lovingly, asked me always to love him though he was just an ordinary person, asked me to stay with him this winter... Fell asleep with the melancholy, happy feeling that I was the guest of this strange prince at his castle and loved by him... it is like a fairy tale.”2
Throughout the film, Lermontov is often called a devil, a monster. A ballerina named Irena says that Lermontov has no heart. I want to remind her that survivor guilt cuts you off from the world. That the control Boris Lermontov exerts is not merely tyranny but desperation, enacted by someone grieving on a grand scale. Who did Anton leave behind in Austria?
Lermontov wanted Vicky to dance to relieve the humdrum horror of the world. He didn’t want her to get married and disappear.
The first scene is the opening night of Hearts on Fire by the Ballet Lermontov. Victoria Page breezes in wearing a big ballgown. Vicky is a dancer and high-society girl, but her tiara is really quite small. She wants more. She watches the ballet from her tower. Vicky’s gown bitterly evokes the old-world, the one that created world wars, with queens, kings and heads on pikes. Lermontov takes her on as his new prima ballerina. He also hires a new composer, Julian Krasner. Vicky and Julian take lunch everyday in Mr. Lermontov’s office. Julian plays piano as Vicky eats celery and prawns. These lunchtime sessions saturate her mind with the score and transform her, Julian says, into a flower swaying in the wind, a cloud lifting into the sky, a white bird flying.
In the beginning of their romance, Vicky and Julian ride in a horse-drawn carriage on a path that snakes the Monte Carlo coast. They declare their love. She decides, in this very perfect moon-soaked moment, that she believes in destiny, and she tells him all about it. Vicky wants to know exactly where she is, so she can know where exactly it is that she fell in love. She attempts to ask the driver for her orientation in the world, but Julian stops her. The horse-drawn carriage, the box seats at the theater, the men, and her wealth hold Vicky hostage from the world. The coachman sleeps as the horses trot on.
Julian tells her that one day, when he is an old man, he will tell a lovely young girl that the happiest day of his life was spent with the famous Victoria Page. I didn’t know the exact place, but it was along the Mediterranean coast. He already knows they won’t be together forever.
The famous ballet sequence of the film is 14 minutes long. It mirrors the dilemma in the film: Vicky is forced to choose dancing or love. She chooses the shoes. Vicky swings around with soldiers, dock men, briny netsmen, and financiers. She has never danced so well.
But she can’t stop. When she wants to dance right, the shoes go left.
As colored cellophane falls onto the stage the carnival turns into the city limits and the blind woman reaches out for her. Vicky realizes the shoes are acting on their own. She dances down the steps and into the street and out of the city gate. The shoes force her to dance straight out into the gloomy wood. Sweat beads on her brow. The shoemaker, Lermontov and Julian blend into one hallucinated figure. Vicky travels further into the underworld, the spirit of the ball and all potential criminality, and in these moments she joins her queer co-stars.
Outside Lermontov’s office is a statue of a naked angel, her arms extending out to the sea. The camera returns to her winged back often: “These angelic beings let themselves be enticed by the beauty of human women, they fall from their ranks in wild licentiousness.”3
It’s hot to fall from grace.
In the Andersen story, an angel hovers over Karen’s bed. She has seen this angel once before, when the red shoes danced her to the graveyard. That mean angel flies towards her, flapping furiously, his leathery wings rising around his cherub curls. He screeches, demanding she dance until she’s a skeleton: “‘til thy skin shrivels up!” He carries a big hot sword and spits when he tells her off. Karen feels condemned by God. She dances through the dark wood for days, unguarded, until she’s bloodied and hungry, her muscles stretched so loose they might slack for good. She dances by the blind woman’s house. Another mother is dead. Lilies lie by her front door in memoriam. Karen has missed her funeral.
Again, she feels abandoned by all.
I have no memories of the time between my father’s death and his funeral. He was diagnosed in April and died early July, after his birthday in late June. He drove a giant red two-seater diesel truck. I had to climb its wheels to get inside. I could hear the truck from the house, blocks away.
For extra money in the winter, he’d snowplow. He would wake me up in a storm and take me to work. He plowed the snow into mountains and drove over them fast until we flew into the dark suburban night, streetlights matching the pale moon glow. We laughed and finished the roads around dawn.
The morning he died, I had the sensation of feeling taller. When I got out of bed, I stood on my toes and spun in the mirror. I made my bed that morning. I never made my bed, but I smoothed the blue quilt and put the pillows in size order. I wished the chore would last forever.
The angel returns when all is quiet.
After the shoes carried her over stack and stone, Karen dances to the house of the executioner. Do you know what I do, little girl?
She begs him to cut off her feet, but not her head. How could she repent without one? The executioner is compassionate, unfazed by her magical dilemma. He chops her feet at the ankles and the red shoes dance off, trailing blood on their way to snow-capped mountains. Karen kisses the hand that wields the axe. He carves her a pair of wooden feet and teaches her the psalms of criminals.
As Karen heals she thinks of the soldier with the long beard. His words ring in her ear. Never come off when you dance. Never come off when you dance. She thinks of the shoemaker and that blurry happy afternoon. Tears spring to her eyes as she hums her new song. She decides to go to church, but the red shoes follow her. Karen could not go anywhere in the world without the shoes twirling around her with her feet still in them.
Karen locks herself inside her small room and screams to the heavens. The angel appears—the same angel she saw that dark night—but he no longer carries a sword. In its stead: splendid green stamens. The angel swallows her in sea foam and roses. They drip with morning dew. He touches the ceiling and makes a golden star that leads to heaven.
This was before the Deluge.
My friend Sara and I went swimming often. We’d sit on the carpet in our wet bathing suits. She’d turn the lights off, the TV too. In the pitch dark, she’d call me Michael. This was the boy she liked at school. She’d kiss me, Michael. I liked when she did, but I never wanted to be that boy. I imagined I was the Archangel Michael. That I had the power to save someone, to slay evil, to swoop down from the heavens. That I had wings, a sword, perfect hair, and women.
In Genesis, the angels were sexual. They descended to Earth en masse and seduced many women, who gave birth to the Nephilim: half-human, half-angel giants who roamed the landscape. They were called monsters and persecuted by god and angry little men.
She’d kiss me, Michael.
After Victoria leaves the company, Lermontov follows her onto a train and asks her to perform The Red Shoes one last time. She agrees, but she does not tell Julian. Vicky sneaks out, slips on the shoes, and flits over to the theater.
When Julian finds out Vicky is dancing, he bursts into her dressing room, frothing at the mouth. He reminds her that her true destiny is with him.
In a brief and brilliant moment, she chooses to dance. I wish this liberation could have stretched on forever for Victoria, that she could have leapt, twirled, and left opening night carrying bouquets of roses and drinking champagne with her co- stars. I wish death wasn’t the only option she saw to experience control. But instead of dancing, Vicky fled the theater before the curtain came up and threw herself into the path of a moving train. The train Julian was boarding as he left her.
The heat is mostly what I remember. Sun bore down on the graves. The ground was wet and uneven. There had been rain the night before. Heat dried the headstones; I watched steam rise up from them. When my father was dying one of his sisters put a small silver rosary in his hand. It had been blessed by a priest with holy water. The object was to ensure safe passage of the soul into heaven. It was also important to combat the dreariness of the hospital. The machine sound was dwindling. The drop ceiling held the gates of heaven.
As Vicky lay dying outside, Lermontov announces to the theater that she is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night. His veneer finally cracks and his eyes fill with tears. He stages the ballet with a single spotlight standing in for his prima ballerina.
The cicadas grew louder as my father’s casket lowered.
I brought my first girlfriend to that graveyard after a snowstorm. We were on mushrooms making snow angels. When we laid down, the snow grew around us. I fell so far into the earth. Her face peered down at me, her backlit cherub curls and moon-made halo rising further and further away. I thought I had died. The thought was calm and soft. But without much effort, she pulled me back up.
1) Powell, Michael. A Life In Movies. New York: Knopf, 1987
2) Rossell, Sven Hakon (ed.) Hans Christian Anderson: Danish Writer and Citizen of the World. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.
3) Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
Jillian McManemin is an artist & writer. Her writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, and Your Impossible Voice. She is the Exhibitions Manager of The Estate of David Smith.