The Red Shoes is a film dear to many who would be forgiven for thinking the genius Powell and Pressburger work has little need for a re-jig. So, the person taking on this classic with the aim of contributing something new is likely to be either brilliant or foolish. Fortunately, it’s Sir Matthew Bourne we’re talking about, so it’s on!
The scenery is a richly gilded proscenium arch with heavy red velvet curtains that, fitting with the tale’s dance within a dance theme, revolves to position us at one moment as audience watching impresario Lermontov’s production, to then being backstage amongst the company members. At emotionally heightened sections of the ballet, the front then rear of stage swaps with dizzying rapidity, emphasising Page’s tragic confusion between real life and the imagination of performance.
A morality tale about pride and obsession, be it through creating or possessing, it has at its centre the nothing-too-special ballerina Victoria Page, tonight danced by Ashley Shaw. Like the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale on which both film and ballet are based, the dancer is utterly under the control of the shoes once they are on her feet, with the inherent ambiguity of whether she is a willing captive or not.
With dancer Vicky at the centre of a love triangle between workaday composer Julian Craster (danced by Chris Trenfield) and the company director Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer), who offers a Faustus-like pact each time he wafts the ribbon shoes in Page’s direction. She’s powerless to resist. The first time on her feet, she appears magnificent in a stiff long tutu and velvet over-gown and she dances her heart out. After an ensemble piece, we see her again and the dress is filthy and ruined suggesting the treatment she has put it through.
There are constant, exciting scene and costume changes, and a series of thrilling tableau with the company at a French café under the moon light or cavorting on the Monte Carlo beach in the sun, when the dancing is so joyous. The centrepiece, as with the film, is a breath-taking section of surrealism when the stage is utterly transformed to be a moving, modernistic backdrop of leaves hurled about in a storm.
As we move towards the climax that film buffs will know involves a train and a disaster, Page has returned to the dance, and her shoes, after running out on an unspectacular but loving life with her partner Craster to dance herself to exhaustion, caught up in the swirling, chaotic ensemble. Throughout, the several film scores by the legendary Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, interlaced and augmented this evening by Terry Davies, give dramatic force to the ballet. But for some reason, the score does not signpost, as would be expected, the impending danger for Page, heading to her imminent demise. She dances with her red shod feet that take her hither and thither but then a large cattle-catcher train front pops its head through the curtains, just enough for her to swoon and drop in a plume of steam. Having experienced such awe and passion at many points tonight, I’m left with a surge of disappointment wondering what happened there? Such a shame that what has roared like a lion tonight for well over an hour, has simply slumped to its knees and the show is ended.
Despite this missed opportunity that blemishes the production somewhat, Matthew Bourne has taken us where none of his contemporary ballet choreographer travel, and as such one hopes he will never abandon his own Red Shoes.