Imagine a cross between Giselle and The Wizard of Oz. Death by dancing and scarlet footwear. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of Powell and Pressburger’s great ballet movie is ripe with allusions to other tales, other myths. Above all, it is about the theatre and the conflict between art and life.
After grabbing the attention of the ballet impresario Lermontov (Adam Cooper, channelling Anton Walbrook to the max) and seizing a star-making opportunity when the prima ballerina is injured, young ingenue Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw, radiant) is caught in the romantic crossfire between the young composer of the titular new ballet and Lermontov himself. Jealousy and obsession congeal to create an environment in which she is doomed to suffer.
Since its debut three years ago, the work has deepened and matured. Shaw brings nuance and depth to her performance, shifting from over-eager soubrette to hard working dancer to dedicated star with utter conviction. Duets between her lover Julian (Dominic North) limn their relationship as it slides from infatuation to doubt and hesitancy. Bourne’s choreographic reach extends even further – from the stiff formality of an aristocratic party to the uninhibited tumblings of a beach party in Villefranche-sur-Mer.
The Red Shoes ballet itself, played against a modernist set of white frames on to which are projected increasingly agitated weather conditions, has echoes of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins in its angular gestures and quirky shoulder hikes. Bourne creates a dazzling pastiche of a Fokine-like exotica and a hilarious Egyptian sand dance in an East End variety show.
Lez Brotherston’s proscenium-arch set revolves and moves like a dancer itself, creating a constantly shifting inter-dimensional space between front and back stage, real life and dream life. The climax is beautifully handled, as the bewitched red shoes propel the doomed ballerina towards an Anna Karenina-style tragedy. I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.