Victoria 'Vicky' Page (Moira Shearer) is a young, unknown dancer from an aristocratic background. At an after-ballet party, arranged by her aunt as a surreptitious audition, she meets Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ruthless but charismatic impresario of the Ballet Lermontov, who questions her:
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?Lermontov takes her on as a student, where she is taught by, among others, Grisha Ljubov (Léonide Massine), the company's chief choreographer.
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.
After seeing her dance in a matinee performance of Swan Lake, Lermontov realises her potential and invites Vicky to go with the company to Paris and Monte Carlo. When he loses his prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tchérina) to marriage, Lermontov begins to see Vicky as a possible successor. Backstage, as Vicky is waiting to make an entrance with the corps de ballet, he pronounces that:
A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.When Ljubov objects that you cannot change human nature, Lermontov responds "I think you can do even better than that — you can ignore it." He decides to create a starring role for Vicky in a new ballet, The Red Shoes, the music for which is to be written by Julian Craster (Marius Goring) a brilliant young composer engaged as orchestral coach the same day that Vicky was brought into the company.
As the premiere of the ballet approaches, Vicky and Julian lock horns artistically, and then fall in love. The ballet is a great success, and Lermontov talks with Vicky about her future:
- Lermontov: When we first met ... you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer, you asked me whether I wanted to live and I said "Yes". Actually, Miss Page, I want more, much more. I want to create, to make something big out of something little – to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question, what do you want from life? To live?
- Vicky: To dance.
Julian refuses to end the affair, so he is fired, and Vicky decides to leave the company with him. They marry and live in London where Julian works on composing a new opera. Lermontov relents his decision to enforce Vicky's contract, and permits her to dance where and when she pleases. The one exception is The Red Shoes: Lermontov retains the rights to the ballet and ownership of Julian's music, and refuses to mount it again or allow anyone else to produce the ballet.
Some time later, while joining her aunt for a holiday in Monte Carlo, Vicky is visited on the train by Lermontov, who convinces her to return to the company to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes. On opening night, as she is preparing to perform, Julian appears in her dressing room; he has left the premiere of his opera at Covent Garden to take her back with him. Lermontov arrives, and he and Julian contend for Vicky's soul:
Julian: You're jealous of her.Torn between her love for Julian and her need to dance, she cannot decide what to do. Julian, realising that he has lost her, leaves for the railway station, and Lermontov consoles her:
Lermontov: Yes! I am. But in a way you'll never understand.
Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.While being escorted to the stage by her dresser, and wearing the red shoes, Vicky is suddenly seized by an irresistible impulse and runs out of the theatre. Julian, on the platform of the train station, sees her and runs helplessly towards her. Vicky jumps from a balcony and falls in front of an approaching train. While lying on a stretcher, bloody and battered, she asks Julian to remove the red shoes, just as in the end of The Red Shoes ballet.
Shaken by Vicky's death and broken in spirit, Lermontov appears before the audience to announce that "Miss Page is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night." Nevertheless, the company performs The Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space where Vicky would have been.