Imagine that, in the still quite early days of cinema, a film incorporated an unknown 15-minute ballet based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s moralising tales. That’s exactly what Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did in 1949, creating the classic that is The Red Shoes. It’s little surprise, however, that one of the UK’s foremost choreographers Matthew Bourne took this film and turned it into an Olivier Award-winning dance production; the acclaimed New Adventures show now returns for a new tour that has begun at Sadler’s Wells.
The story centres around rising star Victoria Page. Coming from an aristocratic background, she’s invited by impresario Boris Lermontov to join his ballet – he’s determined to create a starring role for her in a new production, the music for which will be written by composer Julian Craster. The ballet is a great success, and Victoria & Julian even find love whilst working together, though they keep it hidden from Lermontov. It turns out they were right to do this, as when Lermontov finds out he sacks Julian – and Victoria goes with him. Will she be able to live without her art, or can Lermontov tempt her back into the limelight..?
As someone who doesn’t see many ballets, it took me a little while to be certain of what was going on, but once I’d got a foothold I was completely swept away by it. This truly is how you do storytelling through dance! Unlike all of the supposedly story-driven contemporary routines on this year’s Strictly, which would have made no sense whatsoever without the couples explaining the ‘story’ multiple times before & after performing the routine, every emotion and intention is clearly relayed thanks to spot-on choreography and passionate performances.
So much personality comes across through the dance; ballet may still have quite an uptight reputation, but Bourne’s choreography plays with any expectations you may have of the art form. There are some incredibly tongue-in-cheek moments that are so full of character – you can’t help but chuckle along with the performers when they provide these lighter flashes, and they contrast so well with the dramatic heart of the show.
As the country has been lumbered with a government that has shown nothing but contempt for the arts over the past nine years (and will likely continue to do so), it’s a rather timely revival. Art can be belittled, but this show really brings to life the passion people can have for it, and how important & all-consuming it can become. Hopefully not many artists are put in quite the same position as Victoria Page, but nonetheless it’s a reminder that sacrifices of one kind or another do need to be made.
As well as phenomenal performances from the company of dancers, and terrific accompaniment using the music of Bernard Herrmann, Lez Brotherston’s designs are key in bringing the whole production together. The sets are incredibly versatile, switching seamlessly from onstage to backstage, and transporting us from a Monte Carlo opera house to a party at Villefrance-Sur-Mer to an East End music hall. Fantasy and reality collide in this show, so having this clear (and beautifully designed) framework is a definite help. The costumes are absolutely stunning, revelling in the glamour of the 1940s as well as the beauty of ballet costumes – Page’s red shoes and red dress combination is especially striking.
The Red Shoes is an absolute tour-de-force, and the perfect example of how to make dance (and ballet, in particular) accessible and engaging to a wider audience. It’s an absolute treat.
My verdict: A show that makes dance an engaging spectacle, whilst promoting the importance of the arts – if you missed it first time round, now’s your chance to correct that mistake.