Monday, December 19, 2016

Matthew Bourne's 'The Red Shoes' Is A Meta Love Letter to Art

There's a new fairy tale ballet on the world stage, but it may be more familiar than not...

Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes, debuted this year in November (2016), and is being touted as a production you don't want to miss, even though, being based on the classic film with Moira Shearer in the role of the obsessed and torn dancer, you already probably know how it goes.

World renowned contemporary ballet choreographer, Matthew Bourne has turned more than a few classics on their heads and dealing with fairy tale themes is nothing new. He may be best known for his male swan bevy in his unique take on the classic ballet fairy tale Swan Lake, but he's also adapted other fairy tales, including The Nutcracker and Cinderella. If you've been reading this blog for a few years, you'll know that we were impressed with his bizarre combination of Sleeping Beauty and vampires, that still managed to feel classic and fairy tale like, despite it's contemporary layering of concepts and styles. Whatever he does, you can be sure Bourne will make you think differently about the fairy tales you're used to watching!

It's clear film is an inspiration for Bourne in general and he loves to bring that visceral, bodily experience to a production, so an audience truly experiences his works. With The Red Shoes, Bourne is adapting the critically acclaimed, and much beloved film by cinephiles and balletomanes everywhere - something which many are wondering why it took him so long to do, as it seems ripe for the risk-taking choreographer and contemporary ballet head to tackle, seeing as he has his own company of world touring dancers.

That is, however, a very tall order. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's story, the 1948 film is often said to be the 'perfect adaptation of the fairy tale', and one that's become not just classic on its own merit, but has built its own mythology and tale status as well.
The film, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, is loved as well for its glorious Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff and has legions of admirers, not least Martin Scorsese, who oversaw its restoration in 2009. 
It was particularly important to Bourne, who recalled seeing the film as a teenager. “At that stage I’d never actually seen a ballet, it was my introduction to that world … it does seem terribly glamorous and mystical when you watch this film.” 
Commenting on the challenge to take what works so well on screen and translate that to stage, here's how Bourne described it, during the development phase of the production:
It is actually about dance and dancers, a world that we all understand so well. The film’s genius is to make that theatrical world at times surreal, larger than life and highly cinematic. My challenge will be to capture some of that surreal, sensuous quality within the more natural theatre setting.” 
Bourne said the story of how to become the best, and the sacrifices that had to be made, had a continuing relevance, particularly given the success of programmes such as the X Factor. 
“It is about the dedication it takes to become a star … sometimes that hard grind is forgotten about with things like X Factor. It is still relevant.”
Note: the two images show Vicki Page in the similar ecstasies she feels for her two loves:
dancing and her lover-eventually-husband, Julian Craster.
So what's the outcome?

Before we get into what the critics are saying, here's a little about the production with regard to adapting the film, to give you an idea of what it's like, including a very short video showing some clips:
A beloved fairy tale and Academy Award-winning movie, The Red Shoes has seduced audiences and inspired generations with its tale of obsession, possession and one girl’s dream to be the greatest dancer in the world. 
Matthew Bourne’s magical adaptation is set to a new score arranged by Terry Davies using the music of golden-age Hollywood composer, Bernard Herrmann (famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles), with sumptuous set and costume designs by Lez Brotherston, Paule Constable (lighting) and Paul Groothuis (Sound). 
"Victoria Page" will be created by New Adventures star Ashley Shaw, most recently seen across the UK and internationally as "Aurora" in Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Cordelia Braithwaite and Katrina Lyndon (at certain performances) will also play the role. 
The Red Shoes will dazzle your senses and break your heart.
Even if it's well done, whether faithful to the film or fresh in many ways, why take the time to go see this? Yes, there will be parts of this that can't be captured on stage because they were created - masterfully - for the film medium, and so those montages and transitions where Vicki Page is dancing her role of a lifetime in the Hans Andersen fairy tale ballet role will have a hard time measuring up, if you adore the screen representation. No film, however, is going to viscerally communicate the physical and mental intensity and anguish that Page goes through, quite as well as watching it happen right before your eyes to a real live person - which is what principal dancer Ashley Shaw is lauded as doing.

And it's just as well.

While The Red Shoes 1948 film remains a runaway hit, even now, with almost everyone who sees it (whether they like ballet and fairy tales, or not) the Broadway version of The Red Shoes barely lasted 5 days in 1993, before it was shut down, losing millions. It's clear the risk of translating a cinematic hit into a similarly successful stage production is no easy feat. Fortunately something unique and wonderful appears to be happening with Bourne's take, galvanizing the production and performers to present the 'best' of live performance potential, making it clear why there truly is no such thing that can fully replace live theater.
Bourne: “The film does have that quality of being a monument, but I think you change something straight away when you take it from screen to stage. And, even though I’ve followed the film quite closely, I’ve been able to see lots of ways of expanding on it through dance. There will be quite a few surprises along the way.” 
One area where Bourne has let his imagination run riot is in choreographing the life of the ballet company Page belongs to. In the film, the company is run by Boris Lermontov, a steely aesthete and ruthless boss who has shades of the great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. But while Bourne has retained the character of Lermontov, he’s given the company a new identity, one that bears a distinct resemblance to the Royal Ballet back in 1948, when it was still known as Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The company had just emerged from the war years, when it went slogging around Britain entertaining the public and the troops. For Bourne, it seemed to have something of the improvised, mongrel quality of his own troupe, New Adventures. 
“It was a company I felt we could relate to, even though we’re not a ballet company ourselves. When we were building up the background and the characters in the story, I had my dancers research the lives of English dancers like Beryl Grey. Vicky, of course, is a little bit Margot Fonteyn and, although the audience doesn’t have to know about those connections, they make the work a bit richer.”
There are also reportedly many added details of historical accuracy with regard to balletic works The Sadlers Wells Ballet Company would have performed in that same, mid-20th century timespan, as well as nods to the Hollywood era of film The Red Shoes first shone in, making the piece even more satisfying for fans of both classic ballet and the late 40's film era. For the remake of a classic, which partly relies on people's nostalgia and critical appreciation of the original adaptation, it gives Bourne' production a meta quality, (perhaps ironically) marking it as a contemporary work; something that seems to define - or at least haunt - the creation of Art in this era of the internet and self-focused social media. Essentially, it becomes it's own commentary on obsession, which is very smart and/or very apt.

(You can read more about the creation and expansion of The Red Shoes contemporary ballet via an earlier article by The Guardian, when the show was being created, HERE. It will be of specific interest to dancers and those adapting film to stage.)

And the critics essentially agree. If it wasn't clear before, Australian dancer Ashley Shaw is well on her way to being a star, while the production transports the audience from lavish stage productions and world capitals, to the mess and dust of backstage and rehearsal seamlessly, as nuanced choreography is performed with impeccable skill and timing by the company dancers, making the whole package worth your time and dollars. At least, that's what the critics are indicating across the board.

Here are some excerpts.

The Guardian reports:
Matthew Bourne’s new production of The Red Shoes looks amazing. From curtain-up we are transported to the wordless dramatic realm that Bourne and designer Lez Brotherston have made their own. Each location offers an intense distillation of atmosphere. We are whirled from the Covent Garden ballet stage to a high society soiree, and thence to Monte Carlo, where the impresario Boris Lermontov holds court. It’s a feast for the eye, with every scene animated by sharp detail and witty characterisation. The score, a montage of early pieces by Bernard Herrmann, is deftly chosen... It’s all very artfully composed, and Bourne choreographs with the lightest of touches, threading in references to Hollywood movies and Diaghilev-era ballets as he goes. The Red Shoes, I’m certain, will be dancing for years to come.

While The Upcoming says:
Capturing this (seminal film) in a voiceless ballet – which in some ways is a mind-boggling inversion as a ballet about a film about a ballet – is no mean feat and presents a new challenge to Bourne’s winning formula of reinventing the classics. The approach taken with his New Adventures company is to focus on bringing the surreal and experimental nature of the movie to the stage through movement, aesthetic and sound, rather than a direct replication; in particular, fluidly crossing the boundary between on and backstage, exploring the space where art and reality start to blur, and conveying something of the double-edged joy and grief of a life dedicated to art. Dancers are in one moment expensively, beautifully costumed and the next playfully prancing around in their rehearsal gear with cigarettes still hanging from their lips. Laced with comic timing and humour, Bourne contrasts the en pointe pirouettes and arabesques of traditional ballet technique with unconfined contemporary movements that subvert, surprise and often make one laugh.  
...this is an exquisite and inventive reimagining of a dark tale, confronting what it takes to become a great performer. Or perhaps more importantly for the prolific and visionary choreographer, at its heart is a love of theatre and dance. As Bourne quotes Michael Powell: “The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art.”

And from Broadway World UK:
With expectations high, Bourne rises to the occasion with a slick and indulgent production that is rich in theatricality and swift with its storytelling. As ever, Lez Brotherston's original set designs are both eye-catching and memorable, effortlessly allowing the audience access to the onstage and off-stage scenes via a revolving velvet-curtained frame. 
Bourne may be a genius, but his triumphs are only possible thanks to a hugely talented and dynamic cast that enable his visions to come to life, and The Red Shoes is a prime example of how powerful this combination can be.

So that settles it: when The Red Shoes comes to town, we will be lining up for tickets.

It's not every day you get to witness the history of art in the making and this is shaping up to be one of those times, especially as Shaw's star rises and this becomes 'her' role of a lifetime - hopefully with many more to come!

Here's the official trailer for the production:
While it may not garner the audience numbers of Sleeping Beauty, simply because of the lesser cross-generational appeal of the story, it's clear Bourne's The Red Shoes is a love letter to the theater, to dance and to Art. It's also clear that it all loves him right back.

The Red Shoes will remain at Sadlers Wells until January 29th, 2017 then go on tour. You can find all the touring dates HERE.

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