Director & Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Directed for the Screen: Ross Macgibbon
Filmed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, The Red Shoes comes full circle. Inspired by the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film, Matthew Bourne’s theatrical re-imagining of The Red Shoes has met with critical and popular acclaim, with this 2020 production giving access to a wider audience.
The ballet tells the story of Victoria Page (played by Ashley Shaw) – a young, ambitious dancer given the chance to audition for the prestigious Lermontov Company. Victoria argues with the pianist; composer Julian Craster (Dominic North). Seeing himself as a cut above accompanist, Craster and Page bicker. Both are stunned as Lermontov’s assistant confirms they’re in.
Lermontov (Adam Cooper) – a brooding, egotistical presence – is tired of the old repertoire. With Craster and Page, he develops a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, a story about a dancer’s desire for fame, and the price to be paid. As Craster, Lermontov and Page work together, Victoria and Julian fall in love. Lermontov, infuriated at being passed over, dismisses them from the company. As director and choreographer, Bourne examines their relationship as they struggle for work – stints at a music hall are the best they can get. Page’s fall from grace is too much; she dreams of returning to Lermontov, wearing the red shoes, whatever the cost.
The Red Shoes captures the post-war energy of the Powell and Pressburger film: hours spent drilling at the barre, sat at the piano. This ballet is as much about the pursuit of creativity as the mastery of it. Lez Brotherston’s award-winning costume design also shines on camera. As Page debuts her coveted red pointes, it’s a moment of seduction, for Victoria and for us.
The Red Shoes offers an encyclopaedic view of dance, referencing Rites of Spring and Les Sylphides, among ballet’s greatest hits. The production reveals endless asides and nods – it is Bourne’s most self-referential work. In an accompanying documentary, Bourne admits his first introduction to ballet was through film. This sideways step into an elitist world makes sense when we are watching The Red Shoes. The virtuosity is there, but so are the big, cinematic feelings: desire, ambition, obsession.
Bourne’s trademark blend of classic and contemporary technique is underscored by a soundtrack from composer Bernard Herrmann. Struck by its “bittersweet, romantic” quality, Bourne puts the discomfiting sound at the centre of The Red Shoes. As Shaw dances, outwardly lyrical and sensuous, Herrmann’s dizzying spirals echo her trauma as she realises she is no longer in control.
This production is the second incarnation of Bourne’s The Red Shoes and what emerges is a sharpened, focused edit. Cross-referencing Powell and Pressburger with its fairytale beginnings, The Red Shoes becomes heady, intense. The desire to dance into a new world, while being pulled into one much darker and older, gives The Red Shoes its defining edge. A love letter and a warning siren, the ambiguity with which The Red Shoes regards itself is why it excels on every level. It’s full of melancholic beauty, and not a step out of place.
The Red Shoes is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 21 September 2021.