Friday 19 May 2017

The Red Shoes

Curve, Leicester
16th May, 2017

He’s done it again. Britain’s most prolific choreographer, Matthew Bourne, has worked his magic on a classic story and the result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. Based on the 1948 film of the same name, itself influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairytale about a young woman possessed, both physically and psychologically, by the titular red ballet shoes, Bourne enriches the well-known fable through the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Aspiring dancer, Victoria Page, is offered the role of a lifetime when Prima Ballerina, Irina Boronskaja is injured. Spotted by impresario, Lermontov, Vicky is whisked into a whirlwind of glamour and fame as the leading lady of ‘The Red Shoes’, a new ballet by young composer, Julian Craster. However, when Vicky falls for Julian, much to Lermontov’s resentment her life begins to mirror the twisted tale of the ballet, with tragic consequences.

Herrmann’s music is powerful and resounding, abundant with drama and wistfulness in equal measure. While Bourne’s choreography is perhaps not quite as witty as his previous efforts – although the jaunty pharaohs in act 2 certainly upped the humour – it remains as tender and eclectic as ever. From the angular modernity of the ensemble numbers in ‘The Red Shoes’ sequence, to the silky duets between Vicky and Julian, Bourne’s creativity is a joy to behold. I particularly enjoyed the meta aspects of much of the choreography, from routines based on dance auditions and rehearsals, to a lovely sequence following Julian’s journey through musical composition. All this metatheatricality heightens the sense of life imitating art, especially considering the blood, sweat and tears I can only imagine went into creating a narrative dance production of this size. The red shoes compel Vicky, as I’m sure they compelled Bourne, and likewise compel us. The real skill lies in both Bourne and the dancers’ ability to make a small, seemingly non-threatening inanimate object come to vibrant, sinister life.

Furthermore, the production is sumptuous to look at thanks to Lez Brotherston’s set. It is testament to his and Bourne’s long time collaboration that the design is as much as a part of the fabric of the piece as the dancing is – it is more than a mere set on which dancers dance. Brotherston opens up many layers of meta and theatrical frames. We effortlessly go back and forth from front of house to backstage in a theatre. A whirling proscenium arch and curtain – what a feat of engineering and automation that is! – is integral to the piece. At the opening it sweeps forward as if a cinema zoom, and we are transported into the golden age of Hollywood.

In fact, much of the design pays homage to the production’s cinematic roots. The monochrome modernity of the spectacular Red Shoes ballet segment – the kaleidoscopic introduction was a simple, but breathtaking effect, focusing our attention in onto a new world-within-a-world – juxtaposes gothic graphics with the brilliant white backdrop, recalling the silent movies of old. Conversely, the melodrama of Lermontov’s sexual jealousy is played against a backdrop of plush velvets and golds, just what one would expect of post-war cinema’s promise of a ‘technicolor’ marvel. That Brotherston’s set transitions so smoothly between locations diverse as Covent Garden, Monte Carlo, a high society ballroom and a rough London apartment, further demonstrates his ambitious scope and keen cinematic eye in what is, essentially, a love letter to Hollywood.

A minor – and I mean very minor – sticking point imposed by Bourne’s nostalgic ode to tinsel town, is the slightly old fashioned plot. We could draw criticism from the rather anti-feminist career vs. love trope, but as the piece is so fundamentally shaped by both a by-gone era and the original fairytale (and we all know how un-PC they can be), I feel this can be somewhat overlooked in favour of the efficacy with which Bourne tells this most magical of tragedies.

Amidst the strong performances we’ve come to expect from the New Adventures company, Ashley Shaw is astounding as Vicky. Barely offstage, she is utterly mesmerising even in ensemble scenes; I found my eye continually drawn to her. She has a beautiful ethereal quality as she floats on air during her many en pointe routines (forgive me, I’m not au fait with dance terminology), and effuses emotion from every fibre of her being. In a relatively small but memorable role Michela Meazza is wonderfully wry as the glamourous diva, Irina, and Dominic North’s Julian is an endearing romantic lead.

If parts of the second act feel a little rushed and episodic, it is in part due to the generosity and lushness of the extended theatrical sequence: the incredible ballet routine at the end of act 1 is worth the admission fee alone! The Red Shoes is another triumph to be added to the Bourne canon, and I await with eager eye and ravenous heart to see what he treats us to next.

The Red Shoes is on tour throughout the UK. For full dates and details visit

Sam Archer as Boris Lermontov and The Company. Photo Credit: Johan Persson.

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