This past weekend the 19th of March through the 21st the Center Theater Group Digital Stage presented Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes.”  This filmed version is a New Adventures and Illuminations production, captured live at Sadler’s Wells Theater in 2019.

As always this Bourne Ballet is a sumptuous feast for the eye.  His ability as a storyteller is unsurpassed and his dancer-actors are all superb. The remarkable moving sets, cinematic and costume design by usual collaborator Lez Brotherston are nothing short of perfection.  Gorgeous lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Paul Groothuis and projections by Duncan Mclean all serve to draw you into the story.  Interestingly Bourne chose the music of the revered American film composer Bernard Herrmann.  Everything is in place to sweep you away and yet I was not fully seduced.

Dancer Ashley Shaw moves with flawless ease, adeptly embodying the role of the ambitious young dancer Victoria (Vickie) Page.   She auditions for the imperious Boris Lermontov at a late night after party arranged for by her Aunt.  Veteran Bourne dancer Adam Cooper plays the impresario with power and stealthy sensuality. Dismissing her, he instead hires the piano player Julian Craster an ardent Dominic North who dreams of composing and conducting his own work.   Eventually Victoria auditions for the ballet master Grisha Ljubov and is hired for the corps-de-ballet.  Ljubov as portrayed by Glenn Graham in a parody performance, pulls out all the stops spoofing the exacting and sometimes-tyrannical Russian teacher. Graham has a commanding presence that is hard to look away from especially as he later transforms into the “Shoemaker/Pimp” in the ballet within the ballet.

Matthew Bourne's "The Red Shoes" - Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Center Theatre Group

Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” – Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Center Theatre Group

The stars of the Lermontov Ballet are Irina Boronskaya a fine Diva performance by Michela Meazza and Ivan Bolelawsky as danced by the impeccable Liam Mower.  Both funny and amazingly capable these dancers actualize the spirit of ballet in another era.  The Lermontov Company’s frantic production of Les Sylphides is a hilarious send up of a classic ballet chestnut.  All the rehearsal scenes are infused with in-jokes that dancers and other stage performers will find especially humorous but Bourne is never exclusionary.  As luck would have it Irena Boronskaya falls and breaks her ankle and Lermontov is forced to find another star.  It will be Vickie of course.  She will be the lead in his new ballet “The Red Shoes.”  He molds her into his muse in a languidly romantic duet that ends as he carries her into the spotlight and leaves her there, to her future.  This short adagio is a highlight among many and makes clear why Adam Cooper has left an indelible print as the first Swan/Stranger in Bourne’s groundbreaking “Swan Lake.”

Lermontov’s new ballet is a hit not only with the perceived audience but with the viewer as well.  This sequence is the raison d’être for Bourne’s ballet and this “Ballet Within the Ballet” exceeds all that comes before and will come after.  Vickie as the “Star Ballerina” is seduced away from her lover by the “Shoemaker/Pimp” condemning her to a life of debauchery and endless dancing.  Trapped in the shoes she dances herself to death but not before imploring her past lover to save her.  He cannot and she dies in his arms.  An omen for what is to come.  Using ideas from early avant-garde ballet Bourne has put together a stunning sequence.  The Film-Noir lighting is indelible and the projections transport us to another world.  The adagio between Shaw and Mower when she has come to him as a ghost is one I will not soon forget. This “Ballet Within The Ballet” is the high point of the night.

After the success of the new ballet Vickie and Julian the composer realize they are in love much to the dismay of Lermontov.  He wants the full dedication of his muse and in a fit of jealousy fires the lovers from the company.  Six months later they are working in a grimy music hall.

Ashley Shaw in Matthew Bourne's "The Red Shoes" - Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Center Theatre Group

Ashley Shaw in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” – Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Center Theatre Group

The least compelling segment is Vickie’s descent into madness. Some foreshadowing of Vickie’s mental instability would have made this transition less jolting.   With furrowed brow and unmoving hair Ashley Shaw is not convincing as a woman losing her mind.  A great dancer yes, obsessive insanity no.  Unfortunately I had the same reaction to Dominic North as the intense composer/lover.  Again a dancer of unparalleled ability but lacking the gravitas this character needs to be completely believable.  Still we are carried along with the story as Vickie gives in to her longing for the “The Red Shoes” dancing manically until falling in front of an oncoming train.  Her lover Julian comes to her and she dies in his arms completing the ominous cycle of “The Red Shoes.”

Overall this is another success for Bourne but it is shy of some of his more masterful works.  Brevity would help, as some of the peripheral scenes are too long such as the Egyptian Music Hall performers.  It’s a funny bit that loses steam, as does the beach dance.  This is a cute “Show” number that never makes a clear statement, are they performing for an audience or cavorting on a beach and if so why the 20’s costumes?  Bourne is student of dance history and has overtly used this knowledge here.  Unfortunately, the structure of the ballet begins to sag under too many odes to the giants of the past, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, The Ballet Russes and all its most famous dancers, choreographers and designers. Thus, many scenes could use judicious cuts.

The camera work though generally exemplary would benefit from more wide proscenium shots so we can see the whole picture. Because we can only see what the camera allows we are too often lacking this point of view.  Therefore, with the camera on a lead dancer in front what is going on behind can look unfocused and overly busy.   This in turn can frustrate the viewer.

The Bernard Herrmann score as beautifully re-orchestrated by Terry Davies was an innovative choice by Bourne.  Lacking for me were strong definitive themes.  A rhapsodic love theme would have infused more passion into the lovers and in turn into us.  There are themes here but they do not haunt.

Like the ballet itself we are swept away by the extravagant beauty of the production, the fine details of the storytelling and the prodigious talent of the cast yet we are not fully seduced.  However it would not take much to put us over that edge.  With Bourne’s brilliance I fully expect this to happen as he reworks his ballet.

The stellar company dancers are Stephanie Billers, Ben Brown, Joao  Carolino, Reece Causton, Harrison Dowzell, Jackson Fisch, Rose Goddard, Bryony Harrison, Daisy Mae Kemp, Kate Lyons, and Danny Reubens.

To visit the Center Theater Group Digital Stage, click HERE.

To visit the Matthew Bourne/New Adventures website, click HERE.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” – Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page, Adam Cooper as Boris Lermontov – Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of Center Stage Theatre Group