Art imitates life, and the art immerses us: a structurally and stylistically stunning show
‘The Ballet of The Red Shoes is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to dance in a pair of red shoes’ says the impresario Lermontov in Powell & Pressburger’s 1948 film. ‘Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on…’ And on, and on they go into the accomplished hands of choreographer Matthew Bourne, and onto the fast-moving feet of his company, New Adventures, in a work of triumph and ultimate tragedy.
The tale of an imposing impresario, a kind composer, a passionate performer and the possessive power of art, The Red Shoes revolves – quite literally – around the stage. Bourne, along with Brotherston, his long-time collaborator, have created a story and set that perfectly reflect each other: the central set-piece – a proscenium arch, the symbol of separation between performance and true life – becomes instead a permeable membrane through which bodies and minds can move freely. As the story builds towards its thrilling, unflinching finale, Vicky Page, our passionate performer – a striking and beautifully sensitive Cordelia Braithwaite – finds herself lost in the space in-between, and it’s impossible to tell if she’s on the stage or in the ill-fated station.
As in the original film, art not only imitates life but immerses it, and across this structurally and stylistically stunning show, in everything from the set to the steps, Bourne echoes key moments like a carnival mirror, distorting the reflections until real-life is unidentifiable. The revolving proscenium is a reproduction of the real-life theatre around it, and its slow advance towards the audience at curtain up is as disconcerting as it is dramatic. A lovely fish-dive-style lift, followed by Vicky’ legs running featherlight on-air as she’s swept up in the arms of her lover, first appears in Act I as the image of uplifting love, but, repeated later in the chaos of Act II, its meaning is distorted into panicked despair.
Even the act finales are reflections of one another: the audience applause at the end of Act I finds an inspired use as the sound of the impresario’s growing anger at Vicky and her composer’s affair, culminating in a train whistle that gives the impression of steam exploding from his ears; of course, at the end of Act II, the steam materialises with the most tragic of consequences. And mirroring isn’t limited to the art onstage: through several sets of onstage footlights, the ‘front’ of the stage can shift and turn with the spinning proscenium, and often puts us face-to-face with a mirror of ourselves in an onstage audience. It’s dynamic staging, simply done, and completely immerses the audience in the art.
This is a company on fine form, full of comedic actors – especially Liam Mower’s premier danseur, a tarty, tardy talent who totters around with his male lover – and dramatic dancers. Andrew Monaghan’s composer’s solo at the piano showcases an impressive musicality to Herrmann’s emotive score, and, with Chris Trenfield’s suave and sinister impresario watching from the shadows, it’s an immensely powerful scene. There could be a little more development between Braithwaite’s vivacious Vicky and Monaghan’s composer before their first kiss, and perhaps the impresario deserves a solo before the pas de deux with his protégé to neaten up a narrative that is at times, unusually for Bourne, a little untidy. Nevertheless, the thematic intricacies and famous source material make the story easily followable, and it’s a dramatic and romantic adaptation of a filmic masterpiece; a work of art in its own right.