Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes marks the 30th anniversary of his ballet company New Adventures and is a fitting tribute to the power of art.
Based on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s iconic film that influenced artists from a range of disciplines, including Margaret Attwood, Kate Bush and Martin Scorsese, The Red Shoes follows the fortunes of a touring ballet company on-stage, off-stage and behind the scenes. A more perfect fit for a Bourne ballet would be hard to imagine and will be an even harder act for even Bourne to follow.
Powell and Pressburger took elements of Hans Andersen’s fairytale, rooted in 19th century beliefs and attitudes, and created a drama that chimed with the post-war audience of the late 1940s. Bourne has kept the 1940s setting but subtly updated the narrative to fit our 21st century obsession with the private lives of the stars of stage and screen, and the dedication and skill acquisition necessary to achieve greatness that drives the current popularity of TV shows like Strictly and The X Factor.
At its heart, this is a love story which sees two supremely talented artists, ballerina Victoria Page and composer Julian Craster, forced to choose between their love for each other and their love of their art. To misquote Bill Shankly, “this is not a matter of life and death… it is much more serious than that.”
The scenes of the ballet company in performance are framed by a gilt-edged proscenium arch that is cleverly theatrical and cinematic at the same time, literally setting the scene while nodding to the ballet’s roots in Powell and Pressburger’s film. This frame occasionally spins 180 degrees to reveal the antics of the cast behind the scenes.
During the company’s performance of The Red Shoes (the ballet within the ballet that Bourne is so fond of depicting) projections of scattered leaves, focussed and blurring as they race across the set is increasingly disorientating, then distils into a clear night sky. Such exquisite dramatic effects are themselves a lesson in the art of collaboration, the result of the creative skill and understanding that exists between Bourne, set and costume designer Lez Brotherston and lighting designer Paule Constable.
Bourne, among other things, is playful in his choreography and enjoys fondly mocking the world of fey and eccentric artistic types in which he himself is firmly entrenched and yet from which he stands apart. So we see poseurs rehearsing their moves with fags hanging from their lips in leg warmers and tank tops, and the East End vaudeville show to which the sublime Page and Craster are exiled is depicted by a gross and smutty Wilson and Keppel-esque Sand Dance that still manages to be a wildly witty virtuoso enactment.
Ashley Shaw as the doomed Victoria Page is utterly mesmerising, but each and every member of this company contributes their considerable skills of dance and character to make this another staggering New Adventures success.
Runs 9th – 13th May