The Red Shoes – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Barney Bardsley, March 201
It is such a vicious story: the fairy tale of the girl who just loves to dance, who innocently puts those delicious red slippers on her feet, and then finds herself whirling and jumping and pirouetting in a kind of non-stop, compulsive mania. Addicted to her art. The only outcome? Dancing to her death…
There have been many versions of this archetype, in story, in theatre, in film, where the same seductive and deadly narrative plays itself out; where the woman at the heart of it – the beautiful heroine, the muse, the sacrificial victim – is torn between her art and her life. And where art, invariably wins out.
Kneehigh Theatre did a famously brutal version – the main character’s feet being hacked off, in a futile effort to defeat the power of the red shoes… The heroine hobbles off on her stumps, tortured, broken. This is fairy tale at its most uncompromising and cruel.
“Dancing of the highest calibre”
But Matthew Bourne uses a more subtle prototype as his inspiration: the iconic Powell and Pressburger film from 1948, The Red Shoes. This is a story of psychological pressure, rather than physical pain, and the filmic narrative gives a more subtle, but still ultimately devastating reading, to the original story.
Heroine Vicky Page, beautiful dancer, young ingenue, catches the attention of ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. She becomes his muse. He adores her. Or rather, he loves how she dances. And she becomes his willing creation. But there is a young composer/musician in the company, Julian Craster – also a rising star. Before long Vicky and Julian fall in love. Lermontov’s jealousy is devastating.
There can be only one partner in Vicky’s life: the dance. Life and love and ordinary partnership are forbidden. For a while, she chooses life, but the lure of the dance, the compulsion of the red shoes eventually wins out. She starts to dance again, on and on and on, to her delight and her misery, and – inevitably – her death.
Bourne’s production includes, as we have come to expect from him, dancing of the highest calibre: athletic, imaginative, exuberant. He has an eye for structure and design in his work – moving bodies around the stage with fluidity and elegance – and his artistry really shows in the group scenes, with colourful collages in diagonals and curves and ever changing, ever evolving shapes. The whole stage is used. Inhabited. Elevated.
The heroine, Vicky Page, played here by Ashley Shaw, is also a wonder to watch: sylph-like, charming, enigmatic. Her true moment comes in the dream/nightmare scene at the culmination of Act One, where she is hurled around the stage in a storm of ever more rapid movement: she is consumed in an ecstasy of dance.
But the manner of the production overall feels over-worked, histrionic, somehow lacking in the soul and subtlety of the original film. Bourne is at a clear disadvantage, because he cannot use the naturalistic verbal exchanges that intercut the dance sequences on screen. He has to tell the story through gesture alone – and this feels rather clunky and laboured.
The grace and majesty of the dancing is ultimately subsumed by melodrama – especially in the final act. Something eloquent gets lost in translation. As a homage to The Red Shoes, a film so beloved by so many, including Bourne himself, who cites it as a pivotal moment in his young life, pointing him towards a life in art and in dance, it is certainly faithful and true. But as a re-reading of an old, old story – ever fascinating and compelling – it does not go anywhere challenging or new.
images: Johan Persson