Matthew Bourne is famous for recreating well-known classical ballets – Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Cinderella, Carmen... His latest journey into iconic territory is the 1948 film The Red Shoes directed and produced by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring, with choreography by Jack Cardiff. The film is based on a fairy tale with the same title by Hans Christian Andersen that was published in 1845.

Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) in <i>The Red Shoes</i> © Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw (Victoria Page) in The Red Shoes
© Johan Persson

Running now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes is a set designer’s dream. With a central revolving proscenium wall equipped with fully operational decorative curtains and lights, the action moves from onstage to backstage with a seemingly effortless twist. This wondrous piece of theater magic also creates different scenes without interrupting the action to change furniture. Other pieces of impressive staging are the solid exit wings which become screens for projections perfectly synchronized with the one on the back wall, or when a single upstage light becomes a forward moving locomotive.

The cast of Bourne’s New Adventure ensemble is filled with beautiful dance artists. On this night, the lead role of Victoria Page was performed by the extraordinary Ashley Shaw, whose flexible and lyrical upper body reminded me of prima ballerina Mia Slavenska. Ms. Shaw does not have a typical ballerina’s physique but she sails through Bourne’s eclectic choreography with ease.

The Red Shoes is the story of an inspiring dancer who shoots to stardom after she creates the lead role in Boris Lermontov’s new ballet. It is the story about a love triangle and a young woman’s struggle to find personal happiness while fulfilling her dream of becoming a dancer. The 1948 film was known for its special effects and for its surrealism. Bourne and company came close to recreating that surrealism during the ballet within a ballet section titled The Ballet of The Red Shoes.

Sam Archer and artists of New Adventures in <i>The Red Shoes</i> © Johan Persson
Sam Archer and artists of New Adventures in The Red Shoes
© Johan Persson

Act I is filled with scene shifts, character building and theatrical magic. The ballet class scene is one that all dancers can relate to with its demanding ballet master and the late arrival of the egotistical, aging prima ballerina. A scene morphs into a performance of Fokine’s Les Sylphides and another into a scene at the beach or the seaside at Monte Carlo shifting into a Ballet Russes style performance. Bourne demonstrates the tensions between the choreographer, set and costume designers, composer and company impresario during a scene where they are creating this new ballet, The Red Shoes.

The highlight of Act I is, of course, the performance of the ballet. The opening scene is filled with different shades of grey, including the costumes. That blandness is shattered by the brilliance of the red shoes produced by an evil sorcerer. The players move into a bar lit with flames of orange, giving a sense that our heroine is dancing with the devil. The red shoes work their magic and she is doomed to dance to her death, which she does while traveling through several different unearthly realms. Her curse is finally broken by a priest who can sense her ghostly presence and removes the red shoes.

Act II tends to drag on. The opening scene is the most successful as Victoria Page leaves the Ballet Lermontov to be with her love, the composer, danced handsomely by Dominic North. They are forced to join a seedy vaudeville theater group to survive. Bourne’s choreography for these performers is laced with classic deadpan humor.

Again, the sets take control of the stage as the proscenium wall creates a bedroom scene where the lovers quarrel over their situation. A turn of the wall brings Boris Lermontov, performed by Sam Archer, sitting in his ornate smoking room, pining over the loss of his love and star, Victoria Page.

Ashley Shaw and Sam Archer in <i>The Red Shoes</i> © Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw and Sam Archer in The Red Shoes
© Johan Persson

In the film, Victoria Page leaps off a balcony into an oncoming locomotive. This would be difficult to reproduce on a theater stage, and although Bourne does his best to recreate this image, I did note several low outbursts of laughter from others nearby. The train is stunning in how it appears from upstage through a cloud of steam, but the staging of Victoria’s suicide is somewhat anticlimactic.

Bourne’s The Red Shoes is extremely entertaining, but for this reviewer it does not match the brilliance of his Swan Lake or Car Man. Bourne is a master, however, at creating theatrical splendor with the aid of a very healthy budget, an amazingly talented production staff and cast of dancers.

****1