Don’t you just love it when footwear fits perfectly? Matthew Bourne and The Red Shoes were made for each other. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s most popular film – the greatest ballet movie ever made – provide the ideal source material for Bourne’s populist cinematic imagination.
The visual conceit of a stage-within-a-stage might not be original but it serves the work beautifully. The Red Shoes is as much a backstage story as it is a romance and the push-me-pull-you conflict of art v life.
Grounded in the era of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, it manages to hang a variety of dance styles and pastiches around a narrative trajectory that is as clear as a cloudless sky. While Bourne’s choreography has sometimes appeared less than sophisticated in the past his storytelling skills have never been in doubt. Here, both his dancemaking and narrative talents operate on equal terms.
The plot is simple: a young ballerina Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) is pushed into the indifferent gaze of Boris Lermontov – the charismatic and tyrannical director of a ballet company. When his prima ballerina (Michela Meazza) injures herself in rehearsal Victoria is thrust into the leading role of the new ballet The Red Shoes only to find that her footwear is cursed. Caught between her love for the composer Julian Craster (Dominic North) and her dedication to ballet in the shape of the increasingly jealous Lermontov, she is destined for tragedy.
Lez Brotherston’s set is at once simple and enormously complex. A gilded proscenium arch revolves and shifts back and forth to reveal various aspects of the theatre from the stage to the wings and beyond. The atmosphere is ripe and aromatic – you can almost smell the greasepaint, sweat and dust. As Victoria practices her steps, whirling and bending in a slow cyclone of movement, the set shifts and rolls around her. It draws us into the vortex of the drama as much as the characters. The intercourse between front and back stage, audience and performers, reality and fantasy ebbs and flows like a tide. From the starched and diffident formality of Lady Weston’s soiree where her niece Victoria is first introduced to Lermontov to the beach ball follies of the Ballon de Plage in Monte Carlo, Bourne contrives steps to match the mood with sublime assurance. For the Red Shoes ballet itself, the stage becomes a set of minimalist white flats on which black and white projections of a scudding crosswind appear as a line of dancers scurry like leaves blown across the stage. Design, movement and sound are perfectly integrated.
The use of Bernard Herrmann’s music – selected from several of his film scores – is inspired; the shuddering strings, the doomy, low-thrumming notes that characterize his thrillers and the lighter moods of his Ravel-inspired waltz and earlier works are knitted together in a seamless sonic structure, augmented by sound effects that include the prescient sound of a fateful train.
Bourne’s steps are contemporary neo-classical – not 21st Century but a persuasive simulacrum of 1920s modernism. Echoes of Balanchine’s elastic classicism, Fokine’s heady exoticism and even Nijinsky’s two dimensional frieze-like gestures from L’apres-midi d’un faune arrive with artful carelessness in concert with costumes and sets – Cocteau, among others – evoking the era without rubbing your face in it. The scene in an East End Music Hall with a pair of knobbly-kneed Egyptian sand dancers is not just very funny but piercingly accurate.
This is fine work. If one or two of the events and relationships are too fleeting to register they will develop over time. And time is what Bourne has because like all hand-crafted footwear, The Red Shoes is built to last.