Of all Matthew Bourne’s works, many of which have been seen here in Los Angeles, The Red Shoes makes the best case for an ocean-going integration of dancing, scenic design, and music. Of the three, the music by Terry Davies shines especially brightly with a rich mosaic of film composer Bernard Herrmann’s newly orchestrated soundtracks (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Wells) cleverly wrapped around the story. That the music fits so perfectly is as much of a surprise as how perfectly suited it all seems to dance, even when detached from the iconic films they were intended to accompany. It is music of roughly the same era and Bourne has made it fit with undeniable skill giving us soundscapes for campy comedy, nostalgic looks at made up, old fashioned modern ballet, and erotic contemporary duos that deepen the character’s relationships well beyond the capabilities of the film.
Ballet of the classical sort has never been very good at giving us real romance, or real jealousy either, for that matter. What in the film can seem calculating performances often boosted by the effects of close ups and other cinematic convention, turn out much richer here. The impresario Lermontov seems more besotted with affection or jealousy with his role translated into dance. The remarkable duos for Julian Craster and Victoria Page take their conflicted romance well beyond the impact of their spoken roles as film characters.
Longtime Bourne scenic design collaborator Lez Brotherston’s magically engineered, swiveling set–an imposing version of the actual Covent Garden curtain– repeatedly gives us stories told simultaneously on both sides of the curtain. This is natural terrain for dance but more cumbersome for a screen play. Bourne manages the complexities with wit and imaginative detail. The scenes change with a madcap speed. Small vignettes play out simultaneously in different corners of the stage. The double curtain call that closes The Red Shoes Ballet at the end of Act II is a remarkable sleight of hand that is as disorienting as it is clever. It’s terrific theater which mimics the instant scene changes we take for granted in film. To see it happen in real time in a real space is, simply put, thrilling.
This production, like Wheeldon’s An American in Paris, musicalizes film for the stage. Both have similarities as films about dance, artists, and post war Europe. Each shares a fantasy dance sequence that is at the heart of the action. You can feel Bourne’s affection for this era, the beginnings of English ballet, and especially the Boris Lermontov character, who in this production is more sympathetically portrayed than in the film. There is an ample share of autobiographical content here as well. Bourne, a one of a kind choreographer and producer with his New Adventures crowd could easily stand in for Lermontov and his scrappy touring ballet company from another era. Bourne and company have the enviable position of creating a production that is as much about themselves as it is about The Red Shoes.
There is plenty of pastiche, musical and otherwise, abroad in this production. The beach scene, Ballon de Plage, and its counterpart in the second act, End of Season Party, Villefrance-sur Mer, are witty romps with atmospheric costuming. In Act II we find the fallen ballerina toughing out the performing life in a lowly East End music hall. The scene, milked for its bathos, is an ingenious collage of Hermann’s music. At the center of it we hear piano strains of Chevalier’s Knocked ‘Em in the Old Kent Road. All of it adds up to a faultless evocation of place.
Many of the New Adventures dancers are veterans of other productions. In the lead roles Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) and Dominic North (Julian Craster) brought to life affecting romantic duos. Shaw especially comes across with such authentic spirit both as a dancer and actress. Leon Moran was terrific as Grisha, taking on what was the best and most durable dancing role from the original film. Veteran Sam Archer captured the vulnerable Lermontov in his regal and sympathetic portrayal. And Michela Meazza was spectacularly camp in her mocking send up performance of Irina Boronskaya as the aging, Russian ballerina. This is a cast operating at the top of their game. Go and see them.
(The reviewed performance took place in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater. The production is based on the original 1948 film by Emeric st.and Michael Powell. Direction and choreography are by Matthew Bourne. Performances continue through October 1.)