Friday, November 17, 2017

Matthew Bourne Runs Away with The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes started out as a story by Hans Christian Andersen, dating back to 1845. The dour Danish writer—whose fairytales were far grimmer than those of the brothers Grimm—conjured up a pair of demonic dancing slippers that destroy a young girl’s life: she can’t remove them, even after she’s chopped off her own feet. I’m not a fan of the Andersen story, but I can’t help loving the 1948 English film from the powerhouse team of Emeric Pressburger (love that name!) and Michael Powell.

This cinematic Red Shoes becomes the tragic story of a ravishingly beautiful ballerina -- flame-haired Moira Shearer -- torn between true love (in the person of a shy young composer) and artistic ambition (personified by the impresario of a prestigious dance company). The film, released not long after the dark days of World War II, was an opulent Technicolor fantasia, full of bravura dancing and big gaudy emotions. It adapts the gist of Andersen’s story into a ballet within the movie, the star vehicle that ensures the ballerina’s fame and undermines her human existence. One of its many charms is the casting of such bona fide ballet maestros as Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine in featured roles. But the central focus of The Red Shoes is Shearer as Victoria Page, desperately dancing for her life. Many little girls who were enrolled in dancing classes saw the film in the 1950s, and they’ve never gotten over its impact.

A 1993 attempt to turn The Red Shoes into a Broadway musical gathered such stellar behind-the-scenes talents as Jule Styne (composer), Marsha Norman (lyricist), Stanley Donen (director), and the dance world’s Lar Lubovitch (choreographer). Even Flying by Foy, the outfit that has helped generations of Peter Pans soar aloft, got involved. But it was all for naught: the show lasted for a total of five performances.  

Now along comes Matthew Bourne to usher The Red Shoes into a new era. (It had an award-winning run in London, and I saw it during its U.S. premiere, at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. By now it’s doubtless dancing its way to New York.) Bourne is a choreographer, but one who hails from an unconventional background. Totally without traditional ballet training, he became obsessed with dance as a young boy enamored with MGM musicals. His inspiration was Fred Astaire, not Rudolf Nureyev. He formed a dance company while still in his teens, but didn’t actually study dance (at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance) until the ripe old age of 22. His breakthrough was an astonishing 1995 production of Swan Lake that featured  male swans. Many of the full-length ballets he’s done since have set familiar tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Carmen in detailed social settings. (His version of Cinderella, for instance, takes place during the life-or-death London blitz of World War II.)  Some of his inspiration still comes from the movies. One of my favorite Matthew Bourne ballets is derived from Tim Burton’s film, Edward Scissorhands. 

As someone who grew up immersed in modern dance, not ballet, I love the fact that Matthew Bourne doesn’t force every woman’s feet into foot-crippling toe shoes. His dancers are beautifully trained, but they can perform in soft slippers, in high heels, or in bare feet. When his ladies go en pointe, it’s for a dramatic reason. And I also love his feel for the all-encompassing world of movies. His works are not just about purity of movement but also about characterization and stage design. No surprise: the name of his company is Adventures in Motion Pictures.

1 comment:

  1. I have no ballet training at all but I loved the movie "The Red Shoes". 2 reasons for its appeal are Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook. They are so good. But one of my favorites in all of moviedom is a love scene with Shearer and Marius Goring. They are riding at a slow clip clop in a horse drawn carriage on a road high above the Mediterranean, It is a moonlit night and the driver has fallen asleep, letting the horse set his own pace. Then Goring goes into a long thoughtful wistful speech about where in his loing life has he been happiest. Right here, this night above the sea with the great Victoria Page. It leaves you breathless it is so enchanting.