Music: Bernard Herrmann
Director/choreographer: Matthew Bourne
It should be no surprise at this point that Matthew Bourne’s latest production is spectacular in every way. It also seems redundant to say that this is not just ballet for those who know and understand ballet. It’s also for those less cultured philistines, such as this reviewer, who may have attended quite a few traditional ballets in the past and remember them most distinctly for the excellent naps they encouraged.
Bourne seems always to create from the perspective of an audience ready to be entertained as well as those highly informed looking for beautiful lines and impressive elevation. The Red Shoes marries these two requirements seamlessly, particularly so because the protagonist is a dancer herself, and so whilst the choreography is made up largely of an amalgamation of contemporary and ballet, we have occasional glimmers of more traditional dance, performed with the love and intensity of a passionate ballerina, determined to be the best.
Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw), wide-eyed and willing, catches the eye of ballet impresario Boris Lermantov (Reece Causton) during a rehearsal in Covent Garden and is given the chance to originate the lead role in a new ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, ‘The Red Shoes’. But though it seems that this is only the beginning of a great success story, her hand is forced by Lermantov who insists she choose between art and love.
Most of the performance takes place within a beautiful gilded proscenium arch, as designed by Lez Brotherston, which swings back and forth to reveal the performance both as the audience sees it, and as the performers experience it. This gives so much scope for the glorious chaos of back-stage, as well as the controlled finish of a ready performance. During the seventeen-minute play-within-the-play, we are drawn in to a monochrome modernist retelling of the fairytale, which is so breath-taking one might be satisfied to see just this. One particular projection (designed by Duncan McLean) of great winds roaring through deserted lands coupled with torn, streaming dresses as dancers are blown across the stage, is absolutely stunning.
Having originated the role back in 2016, Shaw’s performance has grown richer and even more thrilling to watch. Seeing her vacillate between naïve trepidation and demonic determination is quite unnerving. Michela Meazza oozes old-school glamour and melodrama as the ageing prima ballerina.
Causton is in the unenviable position of filling Adam Cooper’s shoes in the role of Lermontov. Though he lacks Cooper’s weighty presence, he is still a fierce performer, embodying the quiet threat of power. Harrison Dowzell, playing Victoria’s lover Julian Craster, is wonderfully over the top as composer and conductor, climbing under and over the piano as it magically carries on playing.
Despite all the praises sung thus far, the best thing about The Red Shoes is that we are allowed to laugh: there is so much humour, as well as drama and passion. It’s quite amazing how clearly it’s conveyed too, one would be forgiven for misremembering that there was dialogue.
If you wanted to be very nit-picky, Bourne does have a tendency to dress his female dancers in long skirts, which hides some of the balletic skill – even a ballet philistine can enjoy a good line – but this hardly ruins the overall aesthetic. The production is filled with so much love and care, you might watch a different part of the stage every night and have a near brand new experience. A stunning feast of a show, with brilliance in every detail.
Runs until 14 March 2020