Review: Bourne's "The Red Shoes" Dazzles and Delights, For the Most Part

Sept. 22, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"The Red Shoes," Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles, Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2017

The Red Shoes is thrilling at times, charming and affecting at others. Watching it is enormous fun – whether or not you’re a dance fan. It’s also just a little disappointing.

To be sure, Matthew Bourne’s ambitious dance-theater piece packs plenty of artistry and showmanship into an appealing package. All of the choreographer’s signature theatrical and emotive embellishments are on full display here: imaginative scenery, expressive lighting, stirring music, high-pitched melodrama, wry social commentary, superb dancing.

Ashley Shaw as Vicky Page

Bourne’s other major ballets drew on familiar sources for their inspiration: The Car Man (from Bizet’s Carmen), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, the groundbreaking 1995 work that established his renown as a dance world superstar.

In this regard, The Red Shoes is no different. Bourne’s stimulus this time out is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s vibrant, emotionally charged 1948 film. The movie notably introduced the impressive dancing and acting talents of Moira Shearer as a passionate young ballerina. Anton Walbrook contributed a similarly striking portrayal of an obsessive impresario who presides over her swift rise to fame and then sets in motion her terrible descent into madness.

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The Red Shoes may be based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, but light and fluffy it’s not. Rather, it’s a dark narrative that postulates the view that an artist must live only for her art. Nothing else matters. Personal happiness will only get in the way of great art and must be avoided at all costs. Down with love, indeed.

The story’s deep psychological underpinnings were expressed most pointedly in the intense, extended, visually stunning Red Shoes ballet that forms the core of the film. While Bourne’s version ends Act One on a high note, too, he substitutes a black and gray palate for the intense, lush Technicolor Powell and Pressburger used so memorably in the movie. Perhaps this is Bourne’s way of underlining that his is an interpretation of the film and not an attempt to copy it.

Some 60 years on, the movie still resonates powerfully, which may be why it’s so hard to surpass it. That doesn’t stop Bourne from trying, and he often succeeds, judging from the enthusiastic response of the opening night audience.

Bourne’s choreography is, as always, exquisite and infinitely watchable throughout. The troupe performs it precisely and seamlessly, if never quite achieving the full, fierce characterizations of the leading players in the film. In addition to Shearer and Walbrook, Marius Goring and Léonide Massine gave pivotal performances. In Bourne’s ballet, those characters are less prominent, and the dancers who portray them lack the magnetism of their screen counterparts.

The noteworthy exception is Ashley Shaw in the leading role of ballerina Vicky Page. She is luminous, unforgettable. Her fluid dancing and vivid presence both anchor and propel the narrative to its inexorable conclusion.

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Production credits are top notch. Lez Brotherston’s evocative sets are economical but don’t look skimpy. An on-stage proscenium and act curtain revolves as the plot requires to reveal either what the audience sees or what the dancers see from backstage. It’s an ingenious and very effective device.

Although the film draws heavily from the movie, Bourne elected to use music by Bernard Herrmann rather than the Academy Award winning Brian Easdale score. It’s a curious choice. I rather like Easdale's compositions, but there’s no denying the power and vitality of Herrmann’s music. Is this another example of Bourne trying to distinguish his work from the film or a miscalculation? You decide.

The Red Shoes arrived in Los Angeles after a London run and British tour that received rapturous reviews. It will be at The Ahmanson for two more weeks. You’ll want to see it. I’m glad that I did.

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