Putting on the Red Shoes: A Tango with the Camera

By Sophie Mayer

tango-lesson-sally-potter.jpgThe Tango Lesson, 1997

The Red Shoes

There’s an iconic scene at the heart of Sally Potter’s 1997 film The Tango Lesson. Sally, a film director drawn to Buenos Aires to dance tango (and played by Potter herself) goes shopping for tango shoes: precarious, demanding, stylised, sexualised, high-heeled specialist shoes. Sally sees the shoes in the shop window, and enters to try them on and observe her feet in them. The scene is hauntingly reminiscent of the signature moment in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), in which the film’s protagonist Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), dancing the main role of The Girl in the première of the new ballet The Red Shoes, sees the titular shoes in a shop window, and her reflection above them, as in a cinema screen. The Shoemaker, captivated by The Girl’s captivation, dances the shoes out onto the stage and stands them en pointe. There’s a cut, the first of many instances in which cinematic technique is used to produce an effect impossible on stage, and Vicky/The Girl is wearing the shoes. They will, as anyone familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale knows, dance both The Girl and Vicky to her death. The shoes symbolise Vicky’s talent and ambition as a dancer, and the choice between her artistic and domestic lives that she is socially constrained to, and cannot, make.

The red shoes, which The Girl in the ballet does not choose to wear but is magicked into, argue that desire, and its stand-in or double, dance, are dangerous for a woman in patriarchal culture. Emanuela Guano argues that Sally’s shoes, which dance her into subservience to tangoist Pablo Veron, represent her initial subjection to the social constraints that kill Vicky Page – and that her reversal of the gaze onto Pablo when she claims power as director does not disrupt, but rather conforms to the logic of power. I want to argue, instead, that Potter’s critical intersection of dance and film – of the male lead and the female gaze – offers what Jane Desmond refers to as “a potential utopian site for imagining what a feminist politics of the body might look like,” and that in doing so, she positions her film in relation to those by women avant-garde dancer-filmmakers from Maya Deren and Katherine Dunham through Shirley Clarke and Yvonne Rainer.

Dance is, as theorists such as Susan Leigh Foster and Ann Cooper Albright have argued, a feminised cultural form, identified with the expression and containment of excessive emotions such as desire and grief that are the subject of many ballets. Dance, however, also foregrounds female performers, and in the twentieth century, it came to be an artform in which women have had increasing influence as performers and choreographers – and thus ideally situated for re-imagining a feminist cultural politics, as well as preparing women for the work of filmmaking. Potter trained as a dancer at the London Contemporary Dance School in the early 1970s but did not go to film school. Shirley Clarke described herself similarly as part of the “generation [that was] the last of those who have gotten into film by being originally something else: a dancer.”

Dance therefore operates not only her background, but her optic. Potter, like Clarke, was self-taught, beginning with short films made for expanded cinema live events and dance performances, coming to prominence with a successful short, Thriller (1979), which used ballet as one of its languages. Potter was later mentored by filmmaker Michael Powell, dedicating Orlando to him; that film’s famous maze scene quotes from Gone to Earth. The Tango Lesson takes up a detailed conversation with The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, both of which are excerpted in Potter’s documentary TV series Tears, Laughter, Fears and Rage (1986), in which Powell is a key interviewee.

meshes-of-the-afternoon-maya-deren-3.jpgMeshes of the Afternoon, 1943

The penultimate scene of The Red Shoes features early in Tears, and offers a telling insight into one of the fragmentary ideas Potter describes in her screenplay for The Tango Lesson: “an image of a woman crying. Really crying. As if her heart was going to break. River of water cascading from her eyes and nose.” This scene, which foregrounds the dangerous embodiment of emotion could be alluding directly to the excerpted scene in which Vicky is torn between two autocratic male figures – Julian, her husband and a successful composer, and Boris, the ballet impresario who gave Vicky her break. Already in make-up to reprise her role of The Girl (against Julian’s wishes), with the false eyelashes and mascara of a silent screen star heightening her melodramatic sobs, Vicky is forced by Boris to “put on the red shoes” that dance her to her death.

Dance, Girl, Dance

The clip follows an interviewee’s argument that hysteria is seen as more appropriate than anger for women. Ballet has no place for women’s rage. Nor does classical cinema, something women directors set out to challenge – using dance and dancers. In the fourth part of the documentary series, Rage, Potter includes a clip from Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance, in which the protagonist, a burlesque dancer, stops dead at centre-stage, turning her gaze on the audience, challenging them to “go ahead and stare.” Albright argues that “the physical presence of the dancer – the aliveness of her body – radically challenges the implicit power dynamic of any gaze, for there is always the very real possibility that she will look back.” It’s this possibility that Potter conjures in The Tango Lesson, where the “red shoes” appear as prominent visual elements in the film-within-a-film that Sally is writing, entitled Rage, where they are worn by fashion model muses to a photographer whose murderous actions relate him to Peeping Tom. The precarious, ridiculous shoes lead these women to their deaths. Sally’s tango shoes – as seductive and stylised as ballet shoes – are, by contrast, both attractive and empowering to their wearer. It seems that when a woman actively chooses to “put on the red shoes,” she is able to step out of the dangerous role of muse, the object of the gaze, and become not only the bearer of the gaze, but like Arzner’s Girl, to turn the gaze back on the audience, and to announce her rage at her erasure, and thus her presence as an artist.

Potter’s transition from booted filmmaker scouting locations to heeled and dressed dancer taking the stage – and the gradual synthesis of the two – narrates a relationship between dancer and director that is borne out by several women filmmakers, although rarely noted in histories of cinema. Dance, when removed from the mainstream of costume dramas and musicals, offers what Foster calls “a theoretical stance towards identity in all its registers.” Making bodies and their identities visible, dance film can interrogate the staging of gendered and raced bodies most associated with excessive (dance) performance and its emotionality. Potter’s unravelling of this narrative through dance is salutary firstly because it is semi-autobiographical, and because the filmmaker’s portrait of herself as a tango dancer reverses the usual direction from performer to director. It reflects not only on her pursuit of tango after (and as an antidote to) the commercial success of Orlando, but on her twenty year long engagement with the British dance world. At the completion of her training, Potter formed the Limited Dance Company with Jacky Lansley, who choreographed Orlando and appears as a dancer whose fear of the audience’s stern gaze has caused her to forget her steps in Potter’s second film, The Gold Diggers (1983).

Lives of Performers

tango-lesson-sally-potter-2.jpgThe Tango Lesson, 1997

In a season she programmed for the National Film Theatre to mark the release of The Gold Diggers, a musical fantasia on cinematic history, Potter included films that influenced her by Brecht, Chaplin, Griffith, the Marx Brothers as well as Dance, Girl, Dance. Potter also included films by two major women filmmakers with backgrounds in dance: Maya Deren and Yvonne Rainer. Deren, notes Sherril Dodds, “is cited as being an innovator of ‘choreo-cinema’, an art form in which dance and the camera are inextricably linked.” Deren worked with African-American ethnographer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, who performed “African” dances in a number of Hollywood musicals. Dance historian Sally Banes notes that Dunham combined a seductive racialised persona and her intellectual achievements as an anthropologist. It’s this double self – the eroticised body used by dominant culture, and the intellectually-engaged independent artist – that is investigated by the woman dancer’s transition to director. More than integrated, the two selves become imbricated so that, as in Deren’s short Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which Deren and Anais Nin dance a young woman through courtship rituals and into a wild freedom, the dancing body is simultaneously thinking and feeling. The body’s movement in relation to the camera is an exploration not only of motion but emotion.

Perhaps the best-known choreo-cineaste is film essayist Yvonne Rainer, who emerged from the legendary Judson Street Dance Theater. Judson also played host to avant-gardist Meredith Monk, who describes her experimental film work as “a director, composer and choreographer… wearing three hats.” Rainer, like Potter, trained as a dancer but felt confined by her position as a performer. Noel Carroll, reflecting on Rainer’s oeuvre, argues that in modern dance, the female body is a screen on which emotions are projected or expressed, functioning similarly to the iconic female close-up in Hollywood cinema. Like the close-up, dance silences the figure who bears the weight of abstract meaning. As Potter puts it, “[i]t was in the mute world of the dance that I first discovered, also, the necessity to speak” that film permits. Rainer employed speech disjunctively in her performances, separating the body and voice, and her films take this further. “[F]ilm,” notes Carroll, “allowed [Rainer] the opportunity to reflect on the emotions dispassionately.” Her film <>Lives of Performers (1972), screened in Potter’s NFT season, plays similar games with documenting the off-stage “real” romantic lives of performers as The Tango Lesson would, using the dissonance between the audience’s expectations of backstage musicals and of cinéma vérité to examine the way emotions are culturally constructed and gendered, as Potter did in her TV series.

Emotion is insurgent in Rainer’s work, as the title of her autobiography, feelings are facts, demonstrates. Several of her films include autobiographical material, and often explore the dissonance between spoken word (in voice over) and the action of bodies. The body is the proving ground of the real, the trace whose materiality is evidenced by dancing. Yvette Biro comments on the way the choreographic body functions as a trace even in Shirley Clarke’s documentary about drug users, The Connection: “[t]he ‘highs’ and ‘downs’ of the drug trip find form in the choreography of broken movements… The story is but the acting out of this strange ballet.” Rainer and Potter, who also focus on form over narrative through the lens of choreographic embodiment, thus deflate the conceit that dance is about transcending the body; in The Tango Lesson, Sally’s dancing body is the site of (aesthetic and personal) failure and pain as well as/as part of pleasure. Corinn Columpar, looking critically at the film’s ungenerous reception for its “wild hubris” in starring the director in a semi-autobiographical leading role (in the same year that Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry was released), sees the insistent presence of the body as itself a triumph, although “some reviewers even had difficulty conceding the indisputable: that Potter is an accomplished dancer worthy of the camera’s scrutiny.” Unlike the fantastic dances of costume dramas, where the body disappears into social custom, dance in choreo-cinema is not illusion, but life.

Meshes of the Afternoon

meshes-of-the-afternoon-maya-deren.jpgMeshes of the Afternoon, 1943

It is not only the lives of the performer that are the subject of The Tango Lesson, but the work of performing, and directing. Rainer writes that dance was “[s]omething that offers an identity: ‘I am a dancer,’ also, ‘I am a hard worker.’ ” Potter, who shares a socialist political background with Rainer and Deren, often foregrounds physical work in her films, and in The Tango Lesson it is the repetitive, exhausting work of the dancing body – her body – that is staged. As The Gold Diggers points backwards to early cinema’s relationship with live performance, from Chaplin’s vaudeville to Brecht’s and Eisenstein’s radical theatre, so The Tango Lesson revives the genre of the backstage musical with its magical “film-outside-the-film” structure, in which the film that the audience sees is the film planned by the protagonists. The sleight of narrative by which the apparently autobiographical frame narrative, about a filmmaker whose film in development, Rage , is going nowhere, while her obsession with tango leads her from Paris to Buenos Aires and into an affair with dancer Pablo Veron, becomes the film The Tango Lesson is the narratological equivalent of Deren’s editing across the splice.

This technique, which marks all of Deren’s films from Meshes of the Afternoon onwards, uses the cut to convey bodies from one space to another radically different one in a single, seemingly seamless step or leap. Dodds points out that this technique is devised from Georges Méliès’ trick films, and thus brings an element of magic to Deren’s poetic shorts. The Tango Lesson similarly explores the complex tension between the physical, performing, labouring body that produces dance, and the techniques – from pointe to splicing – that have sought to aestheticise dance as transcending time and space. This property of dance film, and dancer-filmmakers, dates back to the medium’s early days, when the legendary Modernist dancer Loïe Fuller not only had her performances filmed (rare at the time, given the fear that film would destroy the audience for live performance) but designed and patented mechanisms such as mirrored rooms that enabled her to create cinematic illusions.

The Tango Lesson

The Tango Lesson is deliberately not illusionistic, as Deren’s edits are not: the work of filmmaking is being highlighted in the gaps. Potter’s onscreen performance as a director recalls, particularly towards the end of the film (when she looks into a mirror that reflects her gaze to camera as she talks about making a film that will include the scene we are watching) that the film we are watching is a construction, and an impossibility. The viewer is always aware that, as Lucy Fischer writes, “throughout The Tango Lesson , Potter’s camera moves fluidly and elatedly along with the dancers, becoming a kinetic third partner to them.” This “third partner” upsets tango’s illusionistic staging of intimate passion, while – in its fluidity – allowing the dance to speak in its own rhythms. It also reminds us of Potter in her “third hat,” as director as well as performer, breaking the traditional association of the tango dancer with excessive emotion and sexuality.

Jill Dolan argues that this is precisely the damaging cliché that postmodern female performers have set out to challenge, by “know[ing], intellectually and psychophysically… how to control the seductions inherent in the frame, and how to speak the language so that authority, seduction and language mean something different about the status of women in culture.” Potter, Deren, Clarke and Rainer, using dance as metonymy for “the seduction inherent in the frame,” position it critically to create films that are seductive and authoritative, intelligently so. Their difference as filmmakers comes from having stood on the stage where Arzner’s Girl stood, and gazed back out at the audience. The camera and the dancing shoes become interchangeable prostheses, extending the artist(e)’s ability, as Potter writes, to “beg[in] the process of integration – of… various lives as dancer, performer, writer, director.” The tango’s lesson is that the dancer’s film can “show… what dancing” – which is itself metonymy for feeling – “feels like,” allowing us to step into the performer’s, and director’s, uncomfortable, hard-working, exchangeable and desirable shoes.

Sophie Mayer is a writer living in London.

Thanks to Elias Millward and Adventure Pictures.