You’ve got to love Matthew (now Sir Matthew) Bourne, haven’t you? For the last few decades, from his Swan Lake with the male swans and Edward Scissorhands, via Mary Poppins and right up to last year’s splendidly Gothic Sleeping Beauty, he has been enthusiastically following his passions and loves – often films – and transforming them into heart-on-sleeve, crowd-pleasing dance magic. 

Nor does The Red Shoes break his winning streak. Inspired by the strange and wonderful Emeric and Pressburger film of the late 1940s, it is, he says, “in many ways, a personal love letter to a life in theatre and dance. I have loved the film since I was a teenager with its depiction of a group of people all passionate about creating something magical and beautiful. At that stage I’d never actually seen a ballet, it was my introduction to that world. It does seem terribly glamorous and mystical when you watch this film.

“The film’s genius is to make that theatrical world at times surreal, larger than life and highly cinematic. My challenge has been to capture some of that surreal, sensuous quality within the more natural theatre setting. The main message of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is that nothing matters but art. I believe it was a piece of art that asked us to take art seriously as a life-changing force, something that gives intense joy but also asks for and requires sacrifices.”

Thus, it continues to be relevant, he believes.

rs_spotlight_dancer_press_shot_aw“It is about the dedication it takes to become a star and sometimes that hard grind is forgotten about with things like X Factor.”

Incidentally, Bourne has assured me many times that he loves Strictly Come Dancing and credits it, at least in part, with the astonishing rise in popularity of dance, coinciding with the rise of his own New Adventures company.

Meanwhile, the classic film of 1948 starred Moira Shearer and told the story of a ballerina Victoria Page (brilliantly played on the opening night by Ashley Shaw) torn between her love of dance and her love for young composer Julian Crainster (Chris Trenfield), a situation further complicated by the very different love of Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer), the Svengali-like boss of the ballet company she joins.

“It’s a tragic, triangular love story like no other,” says Bourne. “Two men in love with the same woman but in very different ways and all tied up with their combined artistic achievement.”

Here, the ‘red shoes’ from the Hans Christian Andersen story about a shoemaker’s gift that leads its owner to dance to her death becomes a complete one-act ballet within the ballet, as it did in the film. This particular sleight of artistic hand is facilitated by designer Lez Brotherston’s two-sided proscenium arch with curtains, which moves up and downstage and revolves. So we, the audience, are aware that we are being presented with both the performance of ballet and the backstage world of the dancers. It works brilliantly for quick scene changes, too.

As in many of Bourne’s shows, one of The Red Shoes’ most persuasive qualities is the way it combines faithfulness to the source material with irreverence. I’m pretty sure that the second half of the film didn’t open in Villefranche-sur-Mer and certain that there was no subsequent scene set in an East End music hall. But that sort of cheekiness allows Bourne’s terrific sense of humour (and penchant for camp) to manifest itself in the production.

This sort of artistic boldness also leads to the striking score, arranged by Bourne’s brilliant long-time associate Terry Davies, using music composed by the Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote for directors including Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese.

“Who knew that Citizen Kane is full of brilliant dance music,” laughs Bourne. “Much of this music will never have been danced to, or heard, in a theatre before.”

At The Lowry, incidentally, we were privileged to hear the score performed live, under the direction of Brett Morris. After its festive run at Sadler’s Wells, the score will be recorded, I understand.

Tickets have, quite rightly, flown out of the box-office for this wonderful production. But if you can possibly manage to beg or borrow one before the runs ends on Saturday, I strongly urge you to do so. This is great stuff and I defy anyone who has a heart not to love it.

By Kevin Bourke

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The Red Shoes is at The Lowry until December 3, 2016 and touring