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Fairy tales and movies have been two of the abiding fascinations of Matthew Bourne’s illustrious career, the latter providing inspiration through such unlikely sources as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Edward Scissorhands and The Servant. That sexually sinister 1963 Joseph Losey psychodrama was redubbed Play Without Words in the erotically charged ballet that became one of the signature pieces of Bourne’s New Adventures company, and its title could in fact serve as an umbrella term for the unique dance-theater storytelling that has been his domain for 30 years. What better addition to his eclectic repertory than a full-length ballet adapted from the ultimate big-screen dance classic, The Red Shoes?
Cited by directors including Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma among their all-time favorites, the 1948 Technicolor fantasia by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a passionate exploration of the conflict between love and art. It weaves the story of a ballet company and an unconventional romantic triangle around the premiere of a new work based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that provides the title. The key element of that story is a cursed pair of red shoes which, once put on, compel the wearer to keep dancing for eternity or die. Powell and Pressburger dropped the macabre double-amputation from Andersen’s version, but carried over the spell of the shoes into the life of lead dancer Victoria Page, reserving a tragic fate for her right out of Anna Karenina.
A short-lived 1993 Broadway musical based on the film closed after just five performances, but Bourne’s adaptation — his first new production in four years — was a smash in London, before successfully touring the U.K. and U.S., now wrapping up its run in New York.
One of the ballet’s boldest creative strokes is the choice not to use music from the film, but instead to patch together a new musical accompaniment from vintage scores by canonic Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann — primarily Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Fahrenheit 451, orchestrated by regular Bourne collaborator Terry Davies. The melancholy, powerfully emotional strains of Herrmann’s music are perfect for a piece that ultimately becomes a ravishing dance of death.
Familiarity with the Powell and Pressburger film certainly helps, given the absence of dialogue or other story assists beyond identification of the various locations in London, Monte Carlo and the French Riviera in the late 1940s. But Bourne captures the main plot strands clearly enough, infusing the story with his customary blend of wit, sensuality, campy humor and, in this case, exciting bursts of surrealist imagery and expressionist movement. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is that its most dazzling set-pieces are not limited to the ballet-within-the-ballet. Throughout, there are vignettes that thrum with vivid life, from backstage rehearsals to seaside frolics to quiet romantic escapes.
One such interlude early on is a swanky London after-ballet party given by Lady Neston (Daisy May Kemp) for a bunch of bored society swells, which she has organized in order to provide her niece, petite redhead Victoria (Ashley Shaw, a dead ringer for the movie’s Moira Shearer), with an opportunity to audition for ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer). At the same party, talented young composer Julian Craster (Dominic North) impresses the arrogant Boris (a fictionalized Diaghilev), and both Julian and Victoria join the Ballet Lermontov on the same day.
For the sheer delight of haughty diva attitude played to the hilt, it’s hard to beat the company’s resident stars Irina (Michela Meazza) and Ivan (Liam Mower); their phoned-in rehearsal at Covent Garden for Les Sylphides (danced to the original Chopin) is a hoot. Grande dame Irina can’t even be bothered to put on her costume, merely carrying it on a hanger as she walks through her steps, while aloof beanpole Ivan chugs away on a cigarette throughout. One minor change Bourne makes from the film is that rather than leave the company to marry, Irina instead sprains an ankle, staggering en pointe into a faint with a hilariously melodramatic flourish.
Victoria has already caught the hawk-like eye of Boris, and with Irina sidelined, he literally thrusts her into the spotlight, casting her in the lead role of The Red Shoes. Unlike the ballet in the film, with its riot of color, Bourne and his invaluable designer Lez Brotherston present the piece here in monochromatic shades, enhanced by the moody lighting of Paule Constable. The muted palette is broken only by the flame-colored pinstripes on the suit of the Mephistophelean Shoemaker danced by imperious ballet master Grischa Ljubov (Glenn Graham), and then by the shoes themselves and Victoria’s transformed costume after she puts them on.
Brotherston drops in a series of skewed fake prosceniums that fill the stage, across which Duncan McLean’s projections are splashed, reaching maximum effect in a violent windstorm. It’s a stunning sequence, a high-drama silent movie that ends with cawing ravens over a cemetery scene where Victoria’s character, having refused to heed the warning, meets her fate. In a funny throwaway bit, even the strutting peacock Grischa is moved backstage after the performance.
In Act Two, Victoria’s rise to fame with the Ballet Lermontov is truncated when Boris can no longer ignore her romance with Julian — expressed in a buoyant pas de deux, with both of the lovers charmingly costumed in nautical French stripes and billowing high-waisted trousers. Boris forces her to choose either marriage or her art, and she opts for the former, leaving the company with Julian. They end up living in cheap digs in London’s East End, and working in a tacky music hall (the novelty “Egyptian” dance duo is a comic highlight, and the languid showgirls divine).
Brotherston, who also did the fabulous period costumes, has come up with an ingenious key design element — an ornate, revolving shrunken proscenium that allows Bourne to “cross-cut” throughout, as in a movie, between onstage and backstage scenes. This is particularly effective in the climactic stretch, switching from Victoria, caressing the red shoes of her Monte Carlo triumph and yearning for the glory of the prima ballerina, to brooding Boris, languishing in his plush apartment. His torment finds a marvelously silly focus in a grandiose golden sculpture of two dancing feet that glistens beneath his chandelier. When helpless Victoria surrenders to the call of the ballet, Julian and Boris wage a battle for her soul, as Grischa reappears in his Red Shoes costume, taunting her with those killer slippers. It doesn’t end well.
Bourne, who won a Tony Award in 1999 for his gender-reversed Swan Lake, has a flair for the theatrical that’s as sharp as ever, and his sense of spectacle is gorgeously fluid and cinematic. He clearly relishes the opportunity for playful depiction of the surrogate family of a ballet company, with its strict hierarchies, its shifting allegiances and rivalries. One of the hallmarks of his ballets is their rich character detail, and there’s distinctive work here throughout the ensemble. The director-choreographer also mixes it up style-wise, notably in an ebullient end-of-season party during which festive swing and calypso dances are interrupted by the return of Irina, her ankle now healed, clutching Boris in a deadly serious tango. Another standout aspect is the show’s physicalized celebration of the creative process of making art, nowhere more so than in North’s almost convulsive athleticism, literally bouncing off the piano as elements of the Red Shoes score come to him.
I’ll leave it to the dance critics to weigh in on the finer points of the cast’s technique. But in terms of sheer entertainment and invigorating visual storytelling, The Red Shoes is not to be missed. In an added bonus for the tour’s New York leg, Sara Mearns and Marcelo Gomes, celebrated principal dancers with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, respectively, will be alternating with Shaw and North in the roles of Victoria and Julian.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Sam Archer, Ashley Shaw, Dominic North, Michela Meazza, Liam Mower, Glenn Graham, Cordelia Braithwaite, Katie Webb, Stephanie Billers, Katrina Lyndon, Joshua L.M. Harriette, Will Bozier, Jackson Fisch, Philip King, Daisy May Kemp, Jack Jones, Joe Walkling
Director-choreographer: Matthew Bourne, based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Set & costume designer: Lez Brotherston
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Projection designer: Duncan McLean
Orchestrations: Terry Davies
Production: Matthew Bourne/New Adventures
Presented by New York City Center