Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes
Posted on 4 Jan 2017

Heather Kincaid catches up with choreographer Matthew Bourne to talk about his stage reinvention of ‘the greatest dance film ever made’.

“How would you define ballet?” So asks the tyrannical dance instructor, Boris Lermontov, in Powell and Pressburger's 1948 classic The Red Shoes, going on to reveal that for him, “it is religion.” Widely regarded as the greatest dance film ever made, The Red Shoes centres on a young ballerina and star in the making, Vicky Page. When Vicky falls for the company's charismatic composer, Julian Craster, however, the jealous Lermontov forces her to choose between love and her career, knowing full well that for Vicky, dancing is as much a necessity as living.

In a sumptuous new adaptation headed for Birmingham Hippodrome next month, Matthew Bourne reinvents the story live on stage, delving deep into the film's strange, unsettling atmosphere and the complex psychology of its characters. It's one that's been on his 'to-do' list for quite some time.

“Generally, I don't really like films about dance, or dance about dance, so in some ways it was an odd choice for me,” Bourne reveals. “I first saw the film when I was a teenager, before I'd ever even seen a ballet, so really, it was the thing that introduced me to the world of dance, and I think that's true for many people. It was a kind of weird and eccentric world that I fell in love with the idea of.”

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about a pair of enchanted shoes that force their wearer to dance until she dies, the film reworks Andersen's warning against vanity into a tale of all-consuming, almost Faustian ambition. Upon rewatching the film, Bourne says he was surprised to find himself feeling more sympathetic towards the manipulative instructor than he had been in the past: years of experience with dancers have taught him that to be the best at something invariably demands sacrifice, and there is some truth to the view that love can be a distraction.

“People do have a problem sometimes with defining someone who is very ambitious as someone who is too pushy or whatever, but I don't think ambition should be frowned upon so much. I feel like [Vicky] knows that she's good. She doesn't expect everything to happen to her, but she knows she has talent, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.”

In his own take on the story, Vicky has even more reason to be ambitious. A wartime orphan living with an increasingly distant aunt, she's far less privileged than in the film. Like Bourne himself, she begins as something of an outsider to this world, taking nothing for granted and accustomed to striving hard for success. To have come so far perhaps makes the prospect of hanging up her ballet shoes all the more difficult to accept.

“If you watch the film, in her very first appearance, she's sitting at the ballet in a beautiful dress with a sort of crown or tiara on her head. It is quite extreme, and perhaps that's one of the things people like about it, but when you're telling a story today, people tend to prefer the idea of someone who has to struggle a bit more. She's only from slightly more humble beginnings – she's not a Little Match Girl waif – but it's not a foregone conclusion that she's going to get everything she wants.”

In addition to rewriting Vicky's backstory, Bourne has also worked on fleshing out the life and work of the company as a whole, providing them with a repertoire of their own.

“We have several little ballets in the piece which the company are either rehearsing or performing. There's a beach ballet which creates a link to the actual beach when they visit Monte Carlo. In the second half, we have what we call the 'Good vs Evil' ballet – it's called Concerto Macabre in the programme – which reflects the atmosphere of what's going on in the story at that point. That's based on a famously barefoot ballet Frederick Ashton did called Dante's Sonata. We also do a bit of Les Sylphides, and then there's a big, grand, glamorous, waltzy ballet near the beginning to represent the world she wants to be a part of. So it's almost like watching a bit of dance history – you can see all the references.”

It's a history that Bourne has been encouraging his dancers to investigate and work into their performances. As well as picking up on similarities between Ballet Lermontov and his own company, New Adventures, he's based his vision of them on his knowledge of 1940s Sadler's Wells, before it became the Royal Ballet, when things were still a little rough around the edges.

“The dancers in a ballet company are very different now – much more sleek and technically advanced than they would have been in those days,” he explains. “I aways get [the dancers] to do a lot of research for my shows, and it's been quite a fun project for them to get to know what it was like then, though there were a couple of things we couldn't follow. The men at that time weren't very good, for example – anyone who was vaguely interested would be in a company because male dancers were so hard to come by, so I've told them they have to dance better than that!”

Famously, the big finale is a new ballet version of the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, with striking visuals and an almost unreal quality. In Bourne's dance version, The Red Shoes ballet has been made to deliberately stand apart from the more traditional, period styles of design and movement employed earlier in the show.

“We've tried to make it feel like they're doing something new and original and forward-looking, so the movement is more contemporary in some ways. We've also tried to create a look that's very different from the rest of the show – I don't want to give away too much because it comes as quite a surprise when it happens, but the whole set changes. I guess it's a bit like an MGM musical with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire where they'd have what they used to call a dream ballet.”

Not only does this mark a sharp change from the rest of the production, it's also something of a departure for Matthew Bourne and New Adventures, involving the sort of complex point work he's always tended to avoid. Even the music has been chosen to lift this sequence out of its time, pushing it into the brave new world of the 1960s with music from the score of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451.

In keeping with the movie inspiration, the whole score for the production has been pieced together from works by the legendary film composer Bernard Hermann – best known for his iconic soundtracks to The Twilight Zone and Psycho, among various other Hitchcock films.

“Bernard Herman has a wonderful sort of bittersweet feeling about his music which really suits the story very well. I think it's one of the real surprises of the piece how amazing the score is, and it's all been brought together and arranged by Terry Davies, so it sounds like one score rather than lots of different bits and pieces.

“I made a decision not to use any of the Hitchcock scores because people would be thinking about other things if they heard those, so I've chosen less well-known stuff from the 30s and 40s. There are some concert pieces he wrote, as well as some from a film called The Ghost of Mrs Muir, which I've always felt has one of the most beautiful film scores ever. There's also some from Citizen Kane, which I've known for many years but never realised before how great the music is for dancing.”

With the abundance of TV talent shows, a growing obsession with celebrities and increasing competition for creative careers, the story of what it takes to be a star feels in many ways more timely now than ever, even if dancers don't yet enjoy the same recognition as their contemporaries in acting and music. But perhaps the success of shows like Strictly is set to change all that...

The Red Shoes shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 7 until Saturday 11 February.

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