For the past couple of decades Sir Matthew Bourne has been enthusiastically following his own enthusiasms and loves – often films – and transforming them into heart-on-sleeve, crowd-pleasing dance magic. In the process, his company New Adventures has built an unprecedented audience for dance throughout the UK. This audience, he proudly observes, “are fiercely loyal, questioning and open-minded”, following him from his famous Swan Lake with the male swans and the brilliant Edward Scissorhands via Mary Poppins and his splendidly gothic Sleeping Beauty up to last year’s radical reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet.
The Red Shoes, one suspects, is the show that’s particularly close to his heart. 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,” he contends. “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.”
This revival of Bourne’s 2016 hit production, staged by his long-time associate Etta Murfitt, significantly finds dancer, actor and choreographer Adam Cooper, Bourne’s original ‘Swan’, dancing with the company again for the first time in 20 years as Boris Lermontov, the Svengali-like boss of the ballet company, joined by young ballerina Victoria Page (brilliantly played again by Ashley Shaw). The classic film of 1948, starring Moira Shearer (who Page looks quite unnervingly like), told the story of a ballerina torn between her love of dance and her love for struggling young composer Julian Craster, a situation further complicated by the very different love of Boris Lermontov.
“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.
One of the show’s most persuasive qualities is the way it combines faithfulness to the source material with cheeky irreverence and, it has to be said, a heaping helping of camp.
Its inspiring spirit of artistic boldness extends to the striking score, arranged by Bourne’s long-time associate Terry Davies, using music composed by the Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann who wrote for directors including Hitchcock, Welles and Scorsese.
“Who knew that Citizen Kane is full of brilliant dance music,” chuckles Bourne. “Much of this music will never have been danced to, or heard, in a theatre before.” The first time around, the music was played live, this time it’s been recorded by the New Adventures Orchestra, conducted by Brett Morris, but this is a very minor caveat for a show that’s so utterly enthralling, lush and lovely.
Photos by Johan Persson
The Red Shoes is at The Lowry until November 30, 2019. For more information, click here.