I have never felt that ballet was a very successful medium for telling a story. To convey emotion? It works. For the set up of a situation? Sure. But details that push the story forward become exaggerated pantomime. Therefore, I have not been an enthusiastic audience for most full length, classical ballets. I go for the dance. I ignore the story. There, I’ve put it on the table as I feel I must be honest about where I am coming from.
Fortunately, my husband and I thought to screen the original 1948, brilliantly Technicolor film a few days before opening night. It certainly facilitated following the potentially bewildering story on the Ahmanson stage. Matthew Bourne’s “Red Shoes” is a full length, mostly classical, ballet in the strictest sense. During the 1950’s I must have seen the movie half a dozen times. It was at a time in my life when I practically slept with my pointe shoes on and had red ceramic toe shoes hanging on my wall. Had you asked me before we watched the film, ‘what do you remember?’ I would have said little but her passion for dance and love, and her tragic end. Especially the tragic end, her dramatic sacrifice to both. It made perfect sense to an adolescent, pre-feminist, dance-crazed kid. I tell you this because, if you share my feelings about full length classical ballet, I would hope that you too would screen the film before venturing forth.
But it is no longer the ‘50’s, and choreographer Matthew Bourne creates freely for a post-feminist, LBGT friendly world. There is something creaky about the story of a dance crazed girl, Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw), pushed by her aunt, Lady Neston (Daisy May Kemp) under the eyes of the demanding, coldly calculating, ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov (Sam Archer). To make a long story short. Victoria makes the grade, Lermontov has never heard of positive feedback or praise, but clearly appreciates her by giving her ever larger roles. She falls in love with Julian Craster (Dominic North), the composer and pianist who accompanies the troupe. Lermontov who has sublimated any sexual feelings into sadomasochistic balletic tyranny cannot abide sharing her attention with a lover. Lermontov reminded me of my teacher Carmelita Maracci who only touched her young students with a cane, leaving more physical contact to her warm and helpful assistant, Peggy. Dance-crazed youngsters put up with this kind of nonsense.
Ultimately Lermontov pushes Craster out of the company. The young composer gets his big chance in London. Victoria is torn between career and love. She leaves the company (remember the movie was released in 1948, the war was over and women were being pushed back into the home). While still in the company she is presented with a pair of red shoes. They have a curse. When a dancer puts them on she becomes possessed and cannot stop dancing unless they are ripped from her exhausted feet. Victoria has brought the shoes with her to London. One night, when Craster jumps out of bed and runs from her to the piano, she gets out of bed and pulls out the red shoes. Simply having them on her feet for a brief time she convinces herself she must return to the ballet company. Lermontov is hardly warm and welcoming, but Victoria dances again. Craster returns to Monte Carlo to claim his love. She is torn between the two and throws herself in front of the train on which Craster is arriving to claim her. No room for a two career marriage in this scenario.
That dear friends, is the Readers’ Digest version of the story behind Bourne’s new full length ballet and should stand as an exposition of why ballet is not the ideal way to tell a story. Under the umbrella of this very creaky story there are about two hours of dance varying from the very classical to quirky, classic Matt Bourne.
If you have read this far it should come as no surprise that a high point for me is the “Ballon de Plage” piece, charming, precise, visually appealing; its only function is to portray the charms of the Riviera with Bournes’ inimitable wit and precision. It is one of the refreshing contrasts to the strictly classical style of the opening of Act I. Bourne amply demonstrates his comfort with classical technique, but the parts that glow are the parts where the quirky Bourne shines through
Bourne did not use the original score from the movie. Instead the score for this production is composed of a compilation of Bernard Hermann’s film scores from the ‘60’s and before. The recorded music is presented at a frenetic pace, which probably accounts for the revolving cast. It is impossible to imagine dancing the entire ballet two nights in a row, let alone a matinee and an evening performance on the same day. This is an amazing troupe, however the pace becomes a distraction and an end in itself, demonstrating the unquestioned technique of the dancers but often undermining expression. Most of the dance is en pointe. Without exception, execution is as close to flawless as one will see out of animation. Ashley Shaw and Dominic North, who danced Victoria Page and Julian Craster on opening night, are both very expressive dancers. The sets cleverly function to portray a ballet within a ballet and other locations.
In the end it is a matter of taste. “The Red Shoes” is a story ballet in the classic sense, with glimmers of a more modern sensibility. Despite my lukewarm feelings about story ballets, watching such skilled dancers was entirely enjoyable. My personal preference is for the more modern presentation, of which Matthew Bourne is a master.