You might want to make notes here – Matthew Bourne has been gestating The Red Shoes for the past twenty years, and to celebrate the 30th year of his company he’s finally delivered. Based on Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece, The Red Shoes movie also features the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale ‘The Red Shoes,’ as a ballet. So this is a ballet within a ballet, based on a film which features a ballet, based on a fairytale. If this all sounds rather overwhelming, you haven’t seen anything yet – The Red Shoes is a monumental production, as gargantuan in scope as it is in style.
Aspiring dancer Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) is spotted by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer), who invites her to join his company. When Lermontov’s lead dancer Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured, Victoria is groomed to take her place. The culmination of her work is a production of ‘The Red Shoes,’ written by struggling composer Julian Craster (Dominic North). Despite the show being a hit, Victoria finds herself torn between her love of dance with Lermontov, and her passionate romance with Craster, leading to a tragic end for all.
Let’s be clear, this is not an easy tale to tell without dialogue. Bourne is the king of visual storytelling though, so we’re in safe hands. A giant, revolving proscenium arch is our main set piece, allowing us different character and scene perspectives we’re not usually given onstage. Elsewhere, the exceptionally stylish design helps ease us into locations, whilst allowing us to focus on the emotional plight of our main trio. The titular ballet is a real masterstroke. Bourne opts for white cycloramas, backlit projection, and an absence of colour that highlights those red pumps so much more. It allows the dancing to remain the focus, but it still looks great.
The design in general is pretty first rate, so appealing to the eye you might need a lie down. It’s possibly the best-looking show of the year. The Bernard Herrmann score, not an immediately obvious choice of composer, brings a rich, foreboding sense of the 1940’s to the action. You can’t deny the orchestrations by Terry Davies melt your ears with audible pleasure. There is perhaps too much spectacle, which might distract you from key plot elements being set up. It’s not really difficult to follow, but if you had no knowledge of the film you might get lost. It’s not one of those productions where you can sit back and soak it all in, there is an element of work you’ll have to put in to keep up.
It’s Matthew Bourne, of course the choreography is good. It’s great to see that he’s still playing – we’ve got Jazz, Tap, Lindy Hop, Charleston, each adding a different flavour, another colour to the stage. This company looks like they’re having fun, and that is so important to an audience’s connection with them. They all move with so much effortless ease, a standout being the eager and exciting Act 2 opener, a party on the pier that you desperately want to join. Shaw has such fluidity, she moves like a flowing river. There’s a shattering amount of emotion she brings to her body, she must be exhausted but you’d never know. Archer actually has surprisingly little to do in terms of movement, but his stature could only be that of a dancer. He displays a resonance that hits you between the eyes.
This is such a satisfying production, you leave heady by the enormity of what you’ve witnessed. It really is a full package, with design, score, choreography and performance giving us a Christmas present of exuberance and wonder that we can marvel at. For the newbies, The Red Shoes is lacking some essential clarity within its story, so use this as an excuse to watch one of the best films of all time, before you go and witness one of the most breath-taking ballets this year. It was worth the wait Mr Bourne.
The Red Shoes is playing Sadler’s Wells til January 29, 2017.
Photo: Johan Persson