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#202 Secret Cinema

February 21, 2011

We’re waiting at a deserted East London tube station, surrounded by pipe-smoking men in panama hats and women in ballgowns and furs. There is the odd aviator, a bearded bohemian artist or two, and some fellows with placards, calling through old-fashioned megaphones in clipped, RP accents. A jolly copper in an old-fashioned cape keeps the peace.

Minutes later, we’re marching en masse down the street, protesting something with the Unknown Culture Movement, whose cry is ‘Freedom to Create!’ This is Secret Cinema, and we don’t even know what film we’re about to see.

A solitary reader waits for the protest to begin.

Secret Cinema is about turning the experience of film-watching up to 11, by including theatre, interactivity, and a sense of place. If you have tickets, best not to read on. If you don’t, here’s what happened.

We were hustled inside a gigantic disused Victorian factory, fitted out to resemble a post-war Covent Garden. The ‘late 1940s’ dress code and the fake ‘Unknown Culture Movement’ made me think of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but it soon became apparent that this was something much more rooted in a specific time. Clues abounded in the hidden spaces between the cupcake stalls and carnival tents: ballet shoes were strung up over the ceiling of one room, and a life-size ballerina puppet could me yanked into a clumsy dance. Her feet were red and bloody. Elsewhere, a young composer seemed to be undergoing a gruelling audition.

Something - something makes me think 'ballet' here.

Men and women grabbed us and encourage us to dance. I was dragged into an outfitter’s by a prim costumier and forced to try on a tutu. Just as everyone was relaxing into the retro atmosphere, feeling they’d found their feet, a bell sounded and the actors fled with screams, to be replaced by a troupe of sinister acrobats, enacting a danse macabre.

When they disappeared, the crowd was taken to several several small ‘cinemas’ to watch The Red Shoes, the 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The carnival - note the dancers training in the window. NOTE THEM.

There’ll never be a better month to see The Red Shoes, in the wake of Black Swan. The Red Shoes tells a ballet dancer’s story too, but where Black Swan is queasy and introverted, The Red Shoes is a dark, technicolour fairytale. It’s told with immense charm and confidence, and it seems to warn urgently of the perils of mixing art and reality. How far should you be prepared to go in pursuit of art, of perfection, of immortality? Far enough to die?

When the lights came up, we shambled sheepishly out of the suddenly empty warehouse. There we all were, a bunch of grown people playing dress-up, looking like children.

Pull the strings, and she’ll dance for you. Later, we passed her in the dark, dangling motionless and inverted. Brrr.
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