Experiencing a Matthew Bourne ballet is like indulging in a whole box of Christmas crackers from Harrods – stuffed with surprises. It also reminds me of reading something by the late writer Vladimir Nabokov – yes, might we say “positively Nabokovian” – dazzling in the layers and turns of the story but always with a hyper-awareness of the brilliant and eclectic mind behind them.
In his New Adventures Production of The Red Shoes, Bourne shows he has a passion for great classic movies and cinematic scores. The man is in a virtual candy store of dance styles and physical pantomime which he plumbs to re-tell wordlessly the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film that starred the gorgeous red-haired Moira Shearer as the woman doomed to dance ‘til she dropped.
In the first scene, we see the company performing classical nineteenth-century ballet style behind a rich red velvet and gilt proscenium, and the dancers are not above taking it just a little over the top to mock the heightened emotion and melodramatic gestures of grand ballet. This is followed by a little after-performance soirée given by one of the company’s patrons, Lady Neston. Some of these characters looked like dead ringers for the Kennedy Center crowd I’ve seen at galas, and Sir Matthew has also clearly walked among them. The choreography took its form from stiff social dance of cotillions, but pushed to amusing lengths. Men smoked cigarettes staring out with bored looks. One woman stifled a yawn, another grimaced at the dance’s conclusion, clearly relieved not to have to endure her partner any longer. These scenes were used to introduce Victoria Page, the young woman with dreams of being a dancer, to the impresario, who can barely endure another such evening on display, and he ends up (as so many do!) being more interested in and hiring the young man playing the piano.
What followed were two of the more delicious scenes of the entire evening. One was the company in rehearsal, and here the characters came crackling to life. Bourne achieves not only the blood, sweat and tears played out on the wooden floors of dance studios everywhere in the daily warm ups of pliés, relevées, and tendus, but the heightened dramas that go on in any company. I read that the dancers in the ensemble were each given an historical dancer to base their character on. With names like Beryl, Svetlana, and Nadia, I could recall some of the last mid-century prima ballerinas. But name guessing aside, Anjali Mehra who played the diva of all dance divas was a comic tour de force, practicing presenting her costume on stage, more interested in the spotlight following her than in actually rehearsing her moves. Her partner, the character Ivan Boleslawsky, danced opening night by Liam Mower, was positively a laugh riot when, with cigarette dripping from his mouth, a long gypsy scarf around his head, and a little shifty piece tied up under his chest exposing a midriff, he clearly was interested not in the least in his female partner.
I don’t know for sure who the dancer was playing, but I was getting Nijinsky channeled through the star of the following generation, the great Tartar dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who leapt to freedom from the Soviet system, the first sexy rock star of ballet. He, not the Beatles, as I remember, put London on the map with his famous partnership with Margot Fonteyn and his infamous appearances at London’s pop art disco clubs.
Mower is a terrific dancer. But it is in the flounces and other dramatic shenanigans with Mehra, both conveying indelible characters with panache that won me over.
Of course, a key setting, taken from the 1948 film, takes place in Monaco where the great Russian impresario, Diaghilev on whom the Svengali of the film, not unfairly, was based. This character becomes the third in the story’s triangle of an affair and was played with flair by Sam Archer. The original Diaghilev had taken his company to the seaside principality to escape Stalinist Russia. Not interested in scoring political points, Bourne used this opportunity to stage a comic ballet sur la plage. Somehow he got me to believe in his corny mash – early twentieth century beach costumes that made the guys look like strong men in a country circus and women like curvy babes all posing in a series of vintage postcards with the choreography blurring into futuristic athletic Pilates workouts on huge beach balls all the while drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes.
Suddenly the work opens up into a full romantic ballet inside a ballet of The Red Shoes. Instead of going into cinematic Technicolor, Bourne and designers Lez Brotherston (set and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting,) assisted by the projection designs of Duncan McLean, pull back and surprisingly go monochromatic. It creates a story-book feel, hearkening back to Hans Christian Anderson with silhouette cut outs. The stylization brings the lead character’s red hair and, of course, her red shoes into dramatic relief.
There is wonderful emotive dancing, not only on the part of Ashley Shaw who gave us a beautiful first night’s Victoria Page but also some stunning dancing by Marcelo Gomes, who had recently joined the company to play Page’s love interest and conductor/pianist.
How does one create a dance vocabulary for a conductor-accompanist? Bourne rose to the choreographic challenge, and the Brazilian dancer Gomes fills every turn and flick of his baton in his obsessive and tortured dance. He channels the demonic relationship of artist with one’s art, where the mind wants to go everywhere, hear and control everything. His charged physicalization carried us into the pure emotion of what I think Bourne was trying to get at: the need and addiction of artists who will sacrifice everything to get across what they see and hear inside their heads.
And that was just the first act.
I didn’t mention before that also in the first act there was a technical glitch a few minutes into the first Kennedy Center performance when the inventively designed mechanical overhead swivel construction, like a great crane meant to sweep the proscenium arch 180 degrees to move the action front of house or backstage, got caught up with the lowering of a giant chandelier. Dancers were caught in transition until an announcement paused the action until the mechanics could be righted. Bourne asked later by way of apology, “ I hope it didn’t spoil your enjoyment.” In fact, it seemed part of Bourne’s way of bringing the audience into the action and his risk-taking inventions.
Some of the most passionate and beautiful dancing came in the second act when the leads are given two gorgeous pas de deux. Bourne seems most pumped when allowing the dancers and the audience to sink into unabashed romantic “staginess.” Suddenly we see the kind of dancing that dominated popularly staged musicals like that in On the Town or An American in Paris. Shaw and Gomes engage in a romantic display and then, as the strain of living as poor artists hits them, they alternately push each other away and cling to each other. They “go there” in their dancing and in emotion, wonderfully blended.
The Red Shoes
closes October 15, 2017
Details and tickets
Bourne’s company’s greatest strength to me is not only the leeway but outright encouragement he gives his dancers to co-create and place their own personal stamp on their characters. While most major ballet companies, especially those who emphasize classical repertoire with an emphasis on the corps de ballet, seem to wipe out individuality with assiduity, Bourne seems to tease, even push dancers into making strong personal statements. Sometimes, to be sure, there are moments where so much is happening on stage it’s hard to know where one is supposed to look. But I love seeing dancers be cheeky, snarky, and altogether “hip.” It draws back the curtain for us to get glimpses of the people behind the technique.
One aspect that did not work for me was the overly loud musical score by Bernard Herrmann piped in as in a megaplex cinema. It was so loud my ribs rattled which I suppose was to make us feel the physical sensation of being “hit with sound” in movie theaters. To me the balance distracted from the dance and sounded distorted. Inventive and clever as it was to pull from Herrmann’s “greatest movie score hits” such as Citizen Kane and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, these scores, undeniably lush, compounded to stun me in not such a happy way.
But oh, that dance can be so many things and reach so many people.This is Bourne’s gift.
The Red Shoes. Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the Hans Christian Anderson Fairy Tale. Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Set and Costume design by Lez Brotherston. Projection Design by Duncan McLean. Sound Design by Paul Groothuis. Lighting Design by Paule Constable. With Sam Archer, Ashley Shaw, Marcelo Gomes, Anjali Mehra, Liam Mower, Glenn Graham, Cordelia Braithwaite, Kate Lyons, Stephanie Billers, Katrina Lyndon, Joshua L.M. Harriette, Will Bozier, Andrew Monaghan, Philip King, Daisy May Kemp, Dominic Lamb, and Joe Walkling. Produced by New Adventures Production. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.