For over twenty years Matthew Bourne nurtured a desire to bring The Red Shoes to the stage, breathing new theatrical life into that extraordinary post-war film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The resultant production, which also incorporates Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous fairy tale as a show within the show, was premiered to great acclaim three years ago and this revival, coming with a number of tweaks, appears even tighter and slicker than I recall.
Its success is built upon an authentic vintage aura, particularly in relation to capturing the film’s colour palette and echoing the impressionistic arthouse cinematography of Jack Cardiff; a great collaborative achievement by designer, Lez Brotherston, and lighting supremo, Paule Constable. Brotherston’s costumes stylishly evoke the post-war period, including representations of Dior’s New Look couture, and his sets provide a seamless momentum between the backstage and onstage activities of the Ballet Lermontov; as well as representing theatrical travels from the picture-postcard imagery of Monte Carlo to the down-at-heel, dog-eared drudgery of an East End Music Hall.
Ashley Shaw gave a sensational reminder of why her portrayal of Victoria Page won the National Dance Award for Outstanding Female Performance, back in 2016. It is a role of considerable depth, not only through the tortured journey of an ambitious young ballerina but also in the ballets that she performs. Page is the centre of a strange love triangle, caught between the composer, Julian Craster, and her impresario boss, Boris Lermontov. Craster loves her as a woman; Lermontov as his star creation. There are obvious parallels with the proprietorial relationship of Diaghilev with Nijinsky and its disintegration following the latter’s shock marriage to Romola de Pulszky (indeed, the film producer, Alexander Korda, originally conceived a biopic about Nijinsky, the failure of which led circuitously to The Red Shoes). The film role was, of course, owned by Moira Shearer and Shaw accomplishes both a palpable sense of Shearer’s vital force and a charismatic representation of her ballet style.
Dominic North also reprised his original role as Craster, bringing a mix of ambition, obstinacy and frustration to the composer’s initial struggles to get his music noticed. A believable chemistry accentuated his romantic duets with Shaw. The big change from the 2016 premiere was Adam Cooper taking on the role of Lermontov, bringing both an enigmatic aloofness and the strong sense of unchallengeable authority. Cooper’s powers of expression conveyed every emotion with great clarity through his commanding stage presence. The conflicts between an artistic and personal life, which is integral to the film, are strongly accentuated in the interlinked performances of these three leads.
The cast was outstanding across the board. Glenn Graham’s portrayal of the ballet master, Grischa Ljubov, was an authoritative caricature of Léonide Massine. Michela Meazza also stepped straight out of the past as Lermontov’s prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaya (a close approximation of the name of one of Ballet Russes’ “baby ballerinas”, Irina Baronova). Meazza’s insouciant sophistication and languid dancing style was another pitch perfect image of that era. This homage to ballet’s history is writ large through the supporting cast with the forenames of the Lermontov troupe inspired by great dancers of the past, such as Nadia (Rose Goddard); Svetlana (Bryony Harrison); Beryl (Stephanie Billers) and Pamela (Christina Rebecca Gibbs). Each dancer was asked to study the performer after whom their character was named.
An early scene in both acts exemplifies Bourne’s gentle, pastiche humour. Meazza marks her steps by partnering an unworn costume through a perfunctory rehearsal alongside an equally bored Liam Mower (as premier danseur, Ivan Boleslawsky) walking through his steps with a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips. The second act sees the hilarious period cameo of a pair of vulgar vaudevillians parodying Wilson and Keppel’s Egyptian sand dance before lusting after the disinterested showgirls.
Utilising Bernard Herrmann’s vintage film scores for the music was another intuitive stroke of genius that achieves an improbable sense of newness, which is nonetheless contemporarily relevant and appropriately filmic. Selections from The Ghost & Mrs Muir (made a year prior to The Red Shoes), Fahrenheit 451 and – surprisingly – Citizen Kane have been orchestrated into a purposeful and seamless score by Terry Davies.
Bourne is one of today’s greatest showmen and, together with his trusted associates (including a wonderful cast) he has worked wonders with this endearing homage to a cinematic masterpiece, achieving his own theatrical gem by capturing a glorious ideal of ballet in the era of the Ballets Russes.