This review is late because I’m writing from A&E, waiting for a friend to be looked after. A hunched-over lady with a cut on her forehead slowly wheezes past, scrubbed blood dried on the side of her face. Her crumpled posture seems a world away from the easy elegance of the ballerinas on stage last night.
At the side of the room are two red chairs. They’re not quite as comfy as those at the Hippodrome. The scuffed trainers at the end of the bed wouldn’t hold a dancer on pointe for more than a second. The queue stretching out into the corridor is almost as cramped as the one for the loos, and that blue curtain doesn’t have the pizazz of the golden one that lifts up to reveal the ballet-within-a-ballet of Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes.
Bourne is a masterful storyteller through movement. He makes you notice the tiniest details of people’s characters from the way they interact with others or when alone. One man expresses his difficulty in composing through an astonishing solo while leaping across a piano. A woman plays with a spotlight, calling it to her as if it should follow her around wherever she goes.
Though The Red Shoes revolves around three core characters, so many of the ballet’s most memorable moments consist of the tiniest interactions between chorus members. Each scene of this passionate, obsessive ballet bursts with minute details and eccentricities. It is a people-watching dream, a Where’s Wally of ballet.
A man with bandages wrapped around his head is taken to a taxi. A woman who looks like she hasn’t slept in days is put in a wheelchair. The queue spills even further because there aren’t enough beds. My head dances with the characters from The Red Shoes.
Ashley Shaw plays rising star Victoria Page in Bourne’s production. She is the young ballerina trying to impress the Diaghilev-esque Boris Lermontov (the brooding Sam Archer), head of the revolutionary dance company that Page wants nothing more than to be a part of. The issue is that Lermontov wants nothing more than to be with her. When she gets the part in Lermontov’s ballet of Hans Christian-Anderson’s fairytale The Red Shoes, it seems like she has achieved everything she ever wanted. In the fairtytale the shoes are bewtiched and she gives over her freedom to be able to dance. In the story we are watching, something similar begins to play out for Victoria.
Shaw is astonishing as Page. Her strength and poise make her not just watchable but a joy to dizzyingly follow around the stage. In one of the most astonishing scenes, her lover (Chris Trenfield) jumps out of bed and sits at the piano. Clad in silk pyjamas, she lunges at him. Until now their relationship has been idyllic, all staring into sunsets and leaping into each other’s arms. The new frustration injected into their partnership is electrifying. As their individual passions begin to split their love, she can’t resist the lure of the power and success of the past. As she slips on the red shoes she is fuelled with fire, her body pinning him down aggressively. The gentle sway of the silk pyjamas now feel incongruous. Her temper is blistering.
Following the story of a ballet-within-a-ballet, the design team cleverly throw us inside and out, backstage, onstage and into the audience. It’s all with a swoop and a swish so subtle we almost don’t notice it happening. Paule Constable’s lighting draws our attention to the devilish red shoes like a queen bee marked with a spot.
For the purposes of clarity the style of dance in the ballet-in-the-ballet is extremely different and far more overtly theatrical than the performances when they’re backstage. While this creates a natural air to most of the piece, with the dancers making teetering on pointe look as natural as walking, the ballet they are performing within the show drags a little, and the projections feel unnecessary and distracting.
Machines beep. The cold lights stay on when it’s now pitch black outside. New emergencies are shuffled in. It’s often the times when the real world crashes in that you either renounce the purpose of shallow drama, or you remember why we bother pouring ourselves into the arts. The Red Shoes is an example of the latter. This story of passion, obsession and romance glitters, twirls and billows. It provides a beautiful escape.
The Red Shoes is on until 8th April 2017 at the Bristol Hippodrome. Click here for more details.