Matthew Bourne’s incredible dance production of classic ballet film The Red Shoes is the perfect fit for his New Adventures troupe.
Every female dancer knows the right pair of pointe shoes can change your life but the crimson slippers at the heart of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s seminal 1948 motion picture The Red Shoes take this sentiment to the extreme. Those red shoes are symbolic of a devoted young ballerina’s turmoil as she is forced to choose between the career she lives for and the man she loves.
The Academy Award-winning film is the quintessential backstage melodrama. Cinema and dance collide in the most spectacular style to depict an absorbing tale of obsession, ambition and jealousy. The characters are distinctive and dedicated to their art. The screen is ablaze in every scene with their desire to dance, make music and move audiences; as well as their passion for living and loving. The extraordinary extended ballet sequence blurs the line between reality and surreal fantasy.
I love the film. And I love that Bourne’s stage version is clearly his way of showing how much he loves it too.
Dance fans are accustomed to Sir Bourne making clever revisions to classic stories (including Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty). His take on The Red Shoes, however, remains reasonably true to the intoxicating original. This production is unreservedly presented as an exquisite homage to the film itself, the enchanting eccentricity of the ballet world and the magic of cinema. The greatest departure from the film is that Bourne uses musical works from Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann rather than the original soundtrack. These carefully chosen scores certainly carry the narrative well, adding to the depth of the whole production.
The film relies on the power of precisely sequenced words to establish the personalities of the main players. The exchange between ballet impresario Boris Lermontov and his soon-to-be protégée Victoria Page when she replies to his query asking why she wants to dance with her own question – “Why do you want to live?” – is just one of many examples. His subsequent answer: “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must” is then followed by hers: “That’s my answer too”. In this moment of dialogue, his imposing presence and demanding nature is demonstrated, as is her intense need to dance and zealous personality. Indeed, the whole premise of the story to come is expressed.
Fortunately, Bourne’s astute observations and storytelling flair are what drive the dancing in all his productions and The Red Shoes is no exception. He translates those legendary lines of speech into a fluid, sweetly sensual, contemporary dance composition for his Victoria (a sensational Ashley Shaw) to perform for the initially disinterested – insulted, even – Lermontov (a foreboding Sam Archer). No matter how tenuous your knowledge of the film may be, the onstage action develops with pace and purpose. Victoria’s soulful dancing wins Lermontov round and she secures an invitation to participate in company class.
Lermontov’s touring company, The Ballet Lermontov, brings an assortment of dancers together, all vying for attention. We are introduced to prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja (Anjali Mehra) and premier danseur Ivan Boleslawsky (Liam Mower) as they walk through romantic era ballet La Sylphide, cuing lighting and entrances for the technical team. These two languidly mark big leaps, balances and beaten jumps with their hands. Ivan puffs away on a cigarette; Irina stalks across the stage in her heels. Both grimacing under the harsh glare of the spotlights, they exude the self-satisfied smugness one probably ought to expect from cossetted stars.
Bourne’s New Adventures troupe boasts talented performers who are just as good at acting as they are at dancing. When the cast emerge from the wings in anticipation of The Ballet Lermontov’s daily company class beginning, there are innumerable details to enjoy. Centre stage, Lermontov remains tough to impress. Victoria is one to watch – and the other dancers know it. Earnest ballet master Grischa Ljubov (Glenn Graham) has his work cut out for him with some of the egos in the room.
Fledgling composer Julian Craster (Dominic North) is determined to make his name by devising music that is more than a mundane accompaniment. North is restless and rhythmic in the role. Utterly in character, he is fiercely protective of Julian’s sheets of music and unwavering in his commitment to every facial expression and gesture. When Victoria is cast in the lead role for the company’s new ballet – a dazzling interpretation of a fairy tale called The Red Shoes – and rehearsals begin, the chemistry between ballerina and composer becomes unmistakable.
Bourne’s staging of The Ballet Lermontov’s performance of The Red Shoes ballet is amazing. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s yarn, the outline for the ballet sequence follows a girl who becomes enamoured by the idea of attending a dance in a magnificent pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes but in doing so makes a pact with the devil, for the shoes are enchanted. They were made to dance and they will go on dancing forever – no matter the fate for the wearer. Monochrome sets, a terrifying Hitchcock-esque video backdrop and forceful choreography that makes a feature of flaunting the dancers’ feet come together to produce an arresting display. Silhouettes make for a stark contrast to the Technicolor ballet sequence in the film, yet Bourne’s sequence is equally mesmerising. I was speechless for much of the interval trying to process just how remarkable it is!
Ashley Shaw is divine as flame-haired Victoria. Moira Shearer was radiant in the film and Shaw is resplendent on the stage. Shaw always comes across as a ‘thinking’ dancer, someone who fully understands shades of movement. Her soft arms and lyrical ease effortlessly convey the ‘born to dance’ aura that the role requires. Shaw maintains an intelligent innocence throughout. It is not really a surprise to Victoria that Lermontov’s all-or-nothing obsessive streak will lead him to demand that she choose between her love for Julian or her love for dance. Shaw manages to capture this nuanced awareness. Her portrayal of Victoria’s gradual heartbreak, and eventual turbulent spiral towards tragedy, is agonisingly believable and deeply profound.
Although the lure of the red shoes casts something of a sinister shadow over the narrative, there are lighter, brighter moments to be enjoyed as well. When the company tours to Monte Carlo, a sun-soaked beach scene sees the dancers creating snapshots that would not look out of place on a postcard. Clad in colourful swimsuits, they playfully frolic in the waves and cavort around with beach-balls. Elsewhere, a moonlit, starry-eyed rendezvous between Victoria and Julian provides a tender passage of sublime partner work.
Lez Brotherston’s set and costume designs are phenomenal throughout. Bourne’s long-time collaborator has dressed the dancers impeccably in beautiful ballet costumes, form-fitting practice wear and elegant outfits. Also, rather appropriately, all the shoes they wear are stunning.
To swing from The Ballet Lermontov’s backstage reality to their onstage performances, Brotherston has created an ornate proscenium arch. This hangs suspended from the rafters and swivels around, with almost as much grace as the dancers themselves, to present different angles from which we view the action. Later, the curtains are used to obscure and reveal various characters, swiftly diverting our attention from one part of the stage to another.
The Red Shoes is perhaps Bourne’s best work yet. The choreography seems the most mellow, natural and reverential of any from his repertoire that I have seen before. Although resolutely character-led, the dancing – diverse in style and delightfully executed – appears to somehow ebb and flow as if it is all that matters. A fitting tribute to a film that centres around the idea that ballet is akin to a religion.
As an ardent fan of the film, I loved this production. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by. But the red shoes go on. Thank you, Matthew Bourne and New Adventures. Dance on!
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 18 February 2017 and is touring nationwide until mid-July 2017.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Update 29 January 2020: Read my review of Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes, January 2020.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.