The Red Shoes – Matthew Bourne: Sadler’s Wells, London, 14 December 2016

Dance the blues

Ah, fame. Ashley Shaw in Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Ah, fame. Ashley Shaw in Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes. Photo by Tristram Kenton

You know how usually a movie doesn’t live up to the book? Well, here’s a case of a dance show that doesn’t live up to the movie. Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes has become something of a classic, not just with ballet lovers but also with the likes of silver screen legend Martin Scorsese who’s named it as one of his all-time favourite flicks.

Matthew Bourne’s adaptation certainly has no issues on the visuals front. As usual, long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston has produced stunning sets and beautiful costumes that all evoke a true sense of place and purpose.

How much you enjoy the show (certainly the first half) may well depend on how much you’re willing to let go of ballet orthodoxy. A big part of why the movie is so convincingly told is that Moira Shearer was an excellent ballet dancer – when her character (Victoria Page) famously replies to the question ‘why do you want to dance?’ with the retort ‘why do you want to live?’, you know from her dancing she’s speaking the truth. There’s simply no choreographic equivalent in this show and, although Ashley Shaw is a superb all-round dancer (as she amply demonstrated in the second half), she doesn’t possess enough ballet gravitas to sustain your belief in that part of her life.

Alongside that, Bourne has filled the ballet world she works in with tired clichés of frivolous, knackered old has-been dancers with nothing going on between the ears. The end result of all this is that when Victoria Page loses her marbles because she’s no longer a leading ballerina, it’s hard to see what she’s missing about it all.

Once the perfunctory ballet choreography is out of the way, the second half is much better – it turns into the melodramatic musical-without-words that it probably always wanted to be. Shaw comes into her own here; far more at home in the contemporary choreography that’s representing the real world, she shines in a couple of terrific duets with her on-stage love, Dominic North.

There are good things elsewhere too. As usual, there are plenty of funny gags, numerous references to famous ballets and the closing scene that charts Page’s hallucinatory descent into madness is a brilliant marriage of drama and music and a great way to finish. Above all, the small orchestra playing the mostly Bernard Herrmann score were uniformly outstanding.

Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes runs at London’s Sadler’s Wells until 29 January 2017. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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