I feel like I’ve been waiting for Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes for my entire life. Or at least, since I first saw the original film.
Released in 1948, the glorious Technicolor Powell and Pressburger classic is a dark and romantic retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (in itself, pretty morbid). It focusses on aspiring ballerina, Vicky Page, and her rise to the top of a company under the watchful eye of its maestro, Boris Lermontov. But her love affair with Julian Craster, the orchestra conductor, threatens her career and she is soon forced to choose between love and art.
Matthew Bourne’s production doesn’t just follow this storyline faithfully – it perfectly recreates the vintage glamour and high drama of the original film. From the dancers’ retro rehearsal gear to Vicky’s chic white Monte Carlo tailoring (a favourite), the costume designs by Lez Brotherston are right on the money. Music makes a big impact too – Bourne and Terry Davies have borrowed from the work of celebrated Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann to create a suitably sweeping, dramatic score.
Bourne has previously admitted the enormous influence that film has had on his work, and there’s more than a touch of the golden MGM era to certain scenes. Julian Craster (Chris Trenfield) has a very Gene Kelly-esque solo in the empty rehearsal studio, dancing over a piano.
Lez Brotherston’s set designs add serious wow factor, particularly the mobile proscenium arch that slides and rotates across the stage to blur the boundary between audience and performers. The opening ballet scene takes place within the confines of the arch – creating a stage within a stage – and as it ends set and lighting shift to reveal an onstage audience (including Vicky Page). The fluid transitions between stage-as-stage and stage-as-real-world states aren’t just a feat of clever design though – it foreshadows the hold that art will take on Vicky’s life.
The Red Shoes ballet-within-the-ballet is a miniature masterpiece with an aesthetic all of its own. A monochromatic palette is created with black costumes, and Gothic silhouettes projected onto a stark white proscenium arch, evoking images of silent films and storybooks. The bright red pointe shoes stick out beautifully in this colourless world – once Vicky’s character has put them on, she is forced to keep dancing until she collapses and dies in the arms of a priest.
It isn’t all tragedy though. This production is surprisingly long on laughs, from the rather bizarre but still amusing tapdancing “Egyptians” in a sleazy East End cabaret show, to the stilted waltzing of the posh party guests. “Le Ballon de Plage”, another ballet set piece, is a hilariously camp send-up of old fashioned beach holidays, while in the opening ballet “Countess Tamara’s Dilemma,” Tamara and her rival lovers flounce about the stage in a frenetic ball scene that cleverly pokes fun at classical ballet. Liam Mower and Michela Meazza are hilarious as the diva company principals – their half-hearted onstage rehearsal for La Sylphide sees Mower smoking and Meazza holding her tutu up in the spotlight instead of bothering to dance.
The love triangle between Vicky, Julian and Lermontov – the emotional crux of the ballet – is developed through three key duets. Vicky’s choice to return to the ballet company after leaving with Julian is dramatically enacted when she puts on the red shoes – having hidden them in a suitcase – and literally dances over him in a passionate, tortured duet. This stands in stark contrast to their sweetly romantic pas de deux in Monte Carlo. Vicky’s tense duet with Lermontov hints at suppressed feelings, but it’s clear from the final moments – when he lifts her, frozen like a doll, into a bright spotlight – that he sees her as an artist above all.
Ashley Shaw is a supremely glamorous Vicky Page – the moment when she is revealed in “The Red Shoes Ballet,” transfigured in red shoes and a scarlet, white and gold tutu, the audience gasp.
My only complaint about the whole production (yes, I have one) is that for a work that uses production design so cleverly to denote what is performance and what is offstage, the ending is quite confusing. The surrealism of Vicky’s return to the company, straight into “The Red Shoes Ballet” with Lermontov himself, is arguably intended to disorient the audience. But the final moment of her suicide seems to happen out of nowhere – and it’s impossible to make someone throwing themselves in front of a train look good onstage.
It’s a small criticism though – once Julian has removed the red shoes at Vicky’s final plea, Lermontov takes them and carefully places them in the spotlight onstage. It’s a telling moment that reveals the depth of his dedication to his art over individuals.
This production is a beautiful, dark, humorous and enticing meditation on art and performance that will surely thrill audiences everywhere. Matthew Bourne has done it again.