It’s an audacious move to adapt Powell and Pressburger’s adored cinematic gem The Red Shoes for the stage. But if anyone can do it, it’s choreographer Matthew Bourne. After all, he’s got a proven track record of making witty, updated hits out of the classical ballet repertoire (most famously with his Swan Lake, featuring a muscular corps of male swans and a sexually confused prince). While he’s taken literature and film as inspiration before (see Dorian Gray, Edward Scissorhands and The Car Man) a revered celluloid classic like The Red Shoes is a risky proposition indeed, freighted with expectation and pressure. It’s a film about a ballerina, with a 20-minute ballet in the middle, a story within a story that blends fantasy and realism with unique skill. Can it work as a pure dance narrative? The answer is a resounding yes. Master storyteller Bourne doesn’t put a foot wrong – his company has a bonafide theatrical triumph on its hands.
Both the 1948 film and Bourne’s production tell the story of aspiring ballerina Vicky Page, torn between vocational obsession and romantic passion. Dance and discipline are embodied by steely impresario Boris Lermontov, whose itinerant ballet company Vicky joins. The controlling svengali, who thinks his protégée has prima ballerina potential, is pitched against Page’s love interest, crotchety young composer Julian Craster (another artistic talent spotted by Lermontov). At the centre of it all is the fictional company’s new ballet The Red Shoes, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale in which a girl, danced by Vicky, puts on a pair of enchanted red shoes that won’t stop moving, thus condemning her to dance to death. It’s a surreal fantasy that mirrors Vicky’s offstage reality, further complicating the tortured dichotomy between Life and Art.
There’s no expositional flab on Bourne’s narrative bones – he doesn’t slavishly follow the film, but allows his story to unfold at a legible lick. It’s all made possible via Lez Brotherston’s ingenious design – a grand proscenium arch that simply revolves to reveal a distinctly less alluring backstage world with its cheap practice piano, the squabbles and sweatiness of company class, the wings stacked high with touring crates. With a sliver of azure sky, the ballet stage becomes a larky Monte Carlo beach scene, or a continental café at dusk, while the draped velvet curtains frame Lermontov’s ornate sitting room (complete with gilded pointe shoe sculpture), then Craster and Vicky’s dank London bedsit. These transitions between glamour and grottiness are beautifully evoked by Paule Constable’s lighting, while Bernard Herrmann’s music (taken from his film scores for Citizen Kane, Fahrenheit 451 and The Ghost & Mrs Muir) is a fitting blend of lush romanticism and spiked stridency.
Bourne’s choreography is full of his trademark wit and invention. Undercurrents of comic stage business enliven almost every scene, like Vicky’s aristocratic aunt’s stilted soiree and the hints of romance between Lermontov’s nebbishy secretary and the marvellously fey danseur noble Ivan Boleslawsky (Liam Mower). The sequence in which the latter rehearses, fag in hand, with the equally languid fur-clad diva Irina Boronskaja (Michela Meazza) is a delight.
Plus there’s some hilarious campery in the form of a capering Egyptian dance for two men sporting handlebar moustaches and orange pants, who imaginatively turn out to be part of the low-rent East End cabaret show that Vicky finds herself performing in after she and Julian have left Lermontov’s company.
Ashley Shaw conveys just the right mix of dreaminess and determination as Vicky – the lyrical swoon of her solo interrupted by a strop when Julian gets the tempo wrong. A bedsit duet between the lovers has real emotional heft, a moving combination of desperation and desire, both for each other and their respective artistic passions – he clings to the piano, her pointes defiantly approach him, stabbing the stage. As Julian, Dominic North convincingly turns the baton-brandishing sway of a conductor into an antic dance of inspiration and frustration, while Sam Archer’s Lermontov is a watchful, quietly commandeering presence.
Bourne, and audiences, have cause to rejoice: The Red Shoes is an irresistibly entertaining and poignant celebration of dance, dancers and artistic sacrifice.
The Red Shoes is on at Sadler’s Wells until 29th January 2017. Click here for more details.