The Red Shoes at Sadler’s WellsCultureTheatre
Never shy of subverting expectations, as with his now iconic all-male reinterpretation of Swan Lake, UK choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne is again setting his ambitions high with a staging of the seminal 1948 film The Red Shoes.
In the Academy Award-winning movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, director Boris Lermontov wishes to make a new ballet about the 1845 Han Christian Andersen fairytale, in which a girl’s “sinful” obsession with wearing her red shoes leads to punishment – the possessed shoes refuse to let her stop dancing and her only redemption is in death. Lermontov is introduced to the flame-haired ballerina Victoria Page and composer Julian Craster, and with them sets about creating a masterpiece. With a growing fixation on Victoria somewhere between love and devotion to his craft, he is determined he will make her the greatest dancer of all time. But his singular belief in dedication to art in one’s life means his own feelings for her, and her romance with Julian, send him into a festering bitterness, destroying their harmonious triangle and eventual leading to Victoria’s demise.
Capturing this in a voiceless ballet – which in some ways is a mind-boggling inversion as a ballet about a film about a ballet – is no mean feat and presents a new challenge to Bourne’s winning formula of reinventing the classics. The approach taken with his New Adventures company is to focus on bringing the surreal and experimental nature of the movie to the stage through movement, aesthetic and sound, rather than a direct replication; in particular, fluidly crossing the boundary between on and backstage, exploring the space where art and reality start to blur, and conveying something of the double-edged joy and grief of a life dedicated to art. Dancers are in one moment expensively, beautifully costumed and the next playfully prancing around in their rehearsal gear with cigarettes still hanging from their lips. Laced with comic timing and humour, Bourne contrasts the en pointe pirouettes and arabesques of traditional ballet technique with unconfined contemporary movements that subvert, surprise and often make one laugh. The dance is set to an entirely new score by Terry Davies, splicing together works by Hollywood composer Bernard Hermann, known for his pieces for Alfred Hitchcock.
Ashley Shaw is an aptly mesmerising Victoria Page; her auburn locks and hourglass figure cast a striking image in every sequence, conveying sensuality in her solos and pas de deux with talented Dominic North and Liam Mower, and the frenzy of Page’s unravelling as she is danced to death in relentless chaînés by the red shoes. Sam Archer is a severe Boris Lermontov, though he perhaps loses some of the nuance of one of the most interesting characters of the film (Anton Walbrook’s invocation of the possessive director). Glen Graham captures the flamboyance of choreographer Grisha Ljubov and Micaela Meazza is every bit the prima ballerina as Irina Boronskaja. Lez Brotherston’s inspired use of costume and set design set off some of the highlights of the performance, notably a 1940s Monte Carlo beach scene performed by an impeccable chorus (complete with oversized beach balls), an orange-boxer-flashing set of Egyptian comedy dancers in a sleazy Covent Garden and, of course, the recurring motif of the red shoes.
It may not hold the wide appeal of Sleeping Beauty, but this is an exquisite and inventive reimagining of a dark tale, confronting what it takes to become a great performer. Or perhaps more importantly for the prolific and visionary choreographer, at its heart is a love of theatre and dance. As Bourne quotes Michael Powell: “The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art.”
The Red Shoes is at Sadler’s Wells from 6th December 2016 until 29th January 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for The Red Shoes here: