To many, including the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and my goddess of song, Kate Bush (who created an album called “The Red Shoes“, inspired by this film), the Oscar winning 1948 British film, “The Red Shoes”, written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is the quintessential ballet film. The sumptuous movie famously explores the obsessive love of ballet tragically crashing up against the desire of romantic love and companionship. Powell and Pressburger magnificently push the limits of filming in Technicolor’s three-strip process, especially noteworthy during the signature dance sequence using a bold, fluorescent-lit color palette. It’s not surprising that Sir Matthew Bourne, the famed wild child of the British ballet world, using his three decade old dance company, New Adventures, was also caught in the film’s magical vision and decided to take on the compelling task of adapting the film into a full length ballet. As the movie was more of a backstage melodrama with very little dance sequences, Bourne’s greatest challenge (well, one of many) was to turn this love triangle and career struggle into a sumptuous two-act ballet, with barely a word spoken between the dramatic characters. And somehow, against all odds, he miraculously succeeds giving us an elegant backstage drama, centered on the incompatibility of having a romantic love life and a celebrated dance career all at the same time. Much like the Hans Christian Andersen’s tale that this ballet is loosely based on, one has to suffer and give up one in order to have success in the other.
Act Two showcases the aftermath of Victoria’s decision and is completely brisk and exhilarating. And as in the Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, her choice is made the moment Victoria slips on the red shoes, for it is then that we see what she values the most, and we all know that this can’t end well. In the fairy tale, the dancer, unable to unlace the red shoes, is danced to exhaustion and death, and while in The Red Shoes, they don’t have that same magical power, the obsession is as deadly as ever. In The Red Shoes, love and career are incompatible. In order to achieve greatness, a dancer must choose between them.
Matthew Bourne’s ballet is a triumph for the heart and soul, with every moment perfectly visualized and elevated by artful design ideas and detailed styling. Bourne’s choreography is executed with an exacting approach to style, gracefulness, emotionality, dramatic storytelling, and witty and thoughtful characterizations, all orchestrated with the lightest of touches. He manages to weave in visual cues and references to the film, with also a ‘tip of the hat’ (thank you Seth Rudetsky for that phrase I’m borrowing) to old Hollywood movies from the same era. The music chosen is mesmerizing, feeling incredibly original while also fitting to the ballet’s 1948 film origin. It comes as no great surprise (although I am amazed by the inventive idea) that the score belongs to the great screen composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-75). Herrmann is most famously known for his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, creating the scores for such classics as “Psycho”, “North by Northwest”, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and “Vertigo”. He also composed scores for many other movies, including “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Cape Fear”, and “Taxi Driver”. Bourne handpicked music from a number of his well-known film scores such as the great “Citizen Kane,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” and “Fahrenheit 451” to weave one solid musical story together flawlessly. The transcribing of these pieces accentuates the period and the celluloid connection giving this production a feeling of unity and one-ness from beginning to end. Without a doubt, The Red Shoes is considered by many to be one of Bourne’s finest achievements to date, winning him the Best Theatre Choreographer and the Best Entertainment at the 2017 Olivier Awards. Having seen only one other Bourne piece, the All male Swan Lake on Broadway years ago, I heartedly, albeit amateurishly agree. It’s a performance piece worthy for all to see.
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