Put on those Red Shoes and Dance
To tell a story of any complexity without resorting to words is no small feat, as many a ballet aficionado will attest. How often does one have to dig through the program at intermission in order to figure out what, exactly, is going on? If there’s one thing one can say about the British choreographer and director Mathew Bourne it’s that he seems to have resolved this problem. The storytelling in his shows, with the exception perhaps of his Sleeping Beauty with vampires – yes, vampires – is amazingly clear.
His Red Shoes is perhaps the finest example I’ve seen of this rare talent. The show just zips along at an amazing clip, propelling you through the storyline, which is drawn from the 1948 surrealist fantasy by Michael Powell and Emeric Presslauer. This is not the first time Bourne has based a dance show on a movie; before this there was Edward Scissorhands and Mary Poppins and Play Without Words. For the Red Shoes, as for so many of his works, he is aided immensely by the clever set and costume designs of Lez Brotherzton. The set is dominate by a gilded proscenium arch that moves and rotates, concealing and revealing the action, allowing the focus to jump from one character in one place and another in an altogether different location. It also divides the space between “reality” (the reality the characters are living) and fantasy (the fantasies they are creating onstage).
The Red Shoes is the story of a ballet company, modeled after the Ballets Russes companies of the thirties and forties, troupes that endlessly toured their mixed repertories of classical ballet and modernist creations. They roamed the stages, sometimes exalted, often not, of Monte Carlo, Paris, London, and smaller towns in between. Many of the dancers in these troupes were Russian emigrés, or pretended to be so. And the personalities were larger than life: diva-esque stars at various stages of rise or decline, ambitious composers, harried choreographers, dogmatic ballet masters. Autocratic impresarios. Or at least so the legend goes.
As in the film, the crux of the story comes down to the conflict between ambition (the desire to dance) and the more down-to-earth pleasures of romance and love. At the end of the day, isn’t this the plot of most musicals, including LaLaLand? Vicky Page is beautiful, talented, and hungry. Boris Lermontov wants to cast her as his his star, and probably lusts after her a bit as well. Julian Craster is a young composer on the rise. Vicky and Julian fall in love, and the impresario’s plans are dashed. The lovebirds leave the company and end up in the hell of the vaudeville circuit. What’s an aspiring ballerina to do?
The red pointe shoes she wears onstage are the metaphor for her ambition. When Vicky puts them on, she literally can’t stop dancing. But the pointe shoes also torture her, as in the Hans Christian Andersen tale from which the plot is derived. Her feet flail, even as she collapses from exhaustion and pain. They symbolize her compulsion to dance. But that compulsion is more clearly explained in the film, where the impresario asks the heroine, “why do you want to dance?” and she responds “why do you want to live?” (Drama!) This almost spiritual drive doesn’t quite come across Bourne’s telling.
Anyway, the show, which premiered last year and is now playing at New York City Center, succeeds on so many levels that you don’t mind that the exaltation of dance doesn’t come through with the same force it does in the film. The action is efficiently organized, the acting is vivid and – especially in the first act – tongue in cheek. The depiction of the Ballets Russes world is both loving and wry. Thankfully, it’s not as histrionic as some of Bourne’s other works (like his Swan Lake). And, given that the story is set in the world of dance, we get a bonus: a series of clever and instantly-recognizable ballet miniatures: a pastiche of Fokine’s Les Sylphides, another of Bronislava Nijinska’s 1924 ballet Le Train Bleu, allusions to Martha Graham and Afternoon of a Faun and Giselle.
As in the movie, there is also a dream ballet, the famous Red Shoes Ballet, in which Vicky really gets to show her stuff; it contains the least interesting choreography in the show, reminding us that Bourne’s way of putting together steps isn’t altogether that interesting. But then again, it isn’t really the point.
Most of the excellent cast of dancers comes from Bourne’s company New Adventures. They’re effective actors and indefatigable movers, able to switch on a dime from one style to another. The show contains ballroom, dance-hall, popular dances, modern dance, and ballet, combined willy-nilly. There’s a particularly funny vaudeville number for two men dressed in minimal “Egyptian” costumes, doing a soft-shoe. Michela Meazza, as the aging prima Irina Boronskaia, telescopes a fantastic mix of grit, sadness and pride. Liam Mower’s Ivan Boleslawsky is an over-the-top Nureyev type, imperious and vain. Sam Archer, though dignified, lacks the overwrought angst of Anton Walbrook in the movie. Glenn Graham is wonderfully campy and imperious as the ballet master – played in the movie by choreographer Lónide Massine.
As the leads, New Adventures stalwarts Ashley Shaw and Dominic North alternate with two New York-based ballet stars, Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet and Marcelo Gomes of American Ballet Theatre. I caught the latter cast at the Sunday matinée, curious to see how they would fit in with Bourne’s theatrically vivid style. And they did not disappoint. Gomes has the amazing ability to just slip into any situation or role and look completely at home in it. Understated and intense, an absolutely gorgeous mover, and devoid of the slightest ballet mannerism, he dominated the stage with this understated ease. Even when he was performing a completely over-the-top solo in which he pretended to conduct the orchestra, he looked unfazed. And then there was his impeccable, oh-so-natural partnering, for which he is justly famous.
Sara Mearns was, in her own way, an even bigger surprise. She is less experienced than Gomes in taking on outside projects, and the repertory of her home company, with its focus on Balanchine, calls for much less acting. And yet she proved perfectly able to emote, to hold a scene not only with her dancing but also with her posture and face. Mearns is no waif; she actually looks like a person onstage, and that helped her characterization as well. She’s dramatic, but she can be funny and tender and sly as well.
Even better, Gomes and Mearns looked good together, like a great onscreen couple. They had sizzle, and could communicate a melting romance but also, when called for, disappointment, conflict, and sexual need.
It’s always exciting to discover a new side of an artist. For this, and for an immensely entertaining show, we have to thank Matthew Bourne.