Red Shoes

Choreography Matthew Bourne, music Bernard Herrmann
New Adventures
Sadler’s Wells

Adam Cooper returns after more than twenty years to Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures’ embrace to play the monstrously single-minded impresario Boris Lermontov, based on Sergei Diaghilev. With memories of his magnetic Swan (I still have the poster) in Bourne’s Swan Lake (his most successful production I’d say), Cooper is my reason for revisiting the production, two years on, hoping he’d bring some of that danger and charisma to the role and lift the production up a notch from pleasant easygoing musical dance theatre d’un certain âge.

But, pleasant easygoing, critic proof, musical dance theatre it remains, tweaked and refreshed, and now with two Olivier Awards to its name. A love letter to theatre in all its forms: Bourne piggybacks on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s iconic Red Shoes 1948 film and Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous 1845 fairy tale with his own brand of overt and hidden ‘tributes’.

A proscenium arch swings this way and that, one minute we are backstage, the next instance the dancers are taking their curtain call. Backstage rehearsals give a flavour of the arrogant Russian prima ballerina, here called Irina Boronskaja (Michela Meazza’s hauteur just right), walking through the Sylphides rehearsal in fur coat and cigarette (everyone seems to have a fag in their mouths—or down their pants—those were the times) and reveal Liam Mower as the effete, self-absorbed Ivan Boleslawksy, a wonderful Robert Helpmann type, the best dancer of the show for me.

Classical ballet is gently lampooned (a Bourne trait), all those ‘artistic’ people. As are the rich sponsors and hangers-on... Lady Neston’s (Daisy May Kemp) Wildean soirée in her grand drawing room with its famous large painting of Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird by Jacques-Emil Blanche, Craster tickling the ivories, Lermontov trapped into seeing her niece Victoria Page dance.

The film’s devilish shoemaker’s boutique is now a jazzy cabaret club with rehearsal director Grischa Ljubov (Glenn Graham doubling with panache) in different guise as the capo dei capi of his mafia men and molls. Leonid Massine has been Bob Fossied. Graham, white streaks in his hair à la Diaghilev, and Fosse zoot-suited, is a personality mix of camp ballet master and intimidating boss Lermontov in this twin role, two sides of Lermontov’s character made explicit?

So, classical ballet (there’s even a touch of Giselle act two—when Page is near death), Fosse, or maybe Jerome Robbins, music and dance theatre that sustained the awestruck, autograph-collecting Bourne, but also music hall from his parent’s generation—Wilson and Keppel’s comic sand dance (in yellow desert boots and keffiyehs but skimpy shorts and tops) from 1934. Red Shoes is a variety show of revue sketches stitched together, quite a hotchpotch of bits and pieces, which I spend my time trying to identify…

The music is by Hitchcock’s favoured film composer, Bernard Herrmann, orchestrated by Terry Davies and played live by the New Adventures Orchestra, Brett Morris conducting. And Hitchcock’s influence is felt in the Red Shoes ballet within Bourne’s Red Shoes dance theatre production (a play within a play)—a storybook animation, a Vertigo vortex of time on an otherworldly dreamscape white set (a nod, too, perhaps to Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death?).

Inevitably, Cocteau has to be here with his Faune head sketches (his lover Jean Marais his template)—in Villefranche-sur-Mer and Monte Carlo with its Ballets Russes Le Train Bleu and Mercure pastiches. The cast list spells out and pays homage to favoured legendary names from the ballet world, Nadia, Svetlana, Beryl, Pamela, Mikhail, Anton, Serge, Frederic, though many were cod-Russian in Diaghilev’s troupe. The name Lermontov always brings me up short: a Russian poet equal to Pushkin.

Cooper’s Lermontov does not try to steal the show (apart from when alone in his plush suite in plush red dressing gown), but stays in role with enigmatic froideur, at the periphery, observing, willing, controlling by force of character. Ashley Shaw, reprising her Victoria Page who lives, and dies, to dance, has grown in the role. She and Dominic North (composer and husband Julian Craster) make a comfortable team (their pas de deux are lovely), but it is Bourne’s little series of ‘tributes’ that keep my attention.

Or ‘quotes’, as I think of them, from ballets, films, and his own work. All with his usual good humour, affection, and lots of tongue-in-cheek parody. A proper magpie is Bourne. I even think I see that four cygnets boy shrug from his Swan Lake. It ends in a coup de théâtre—the magical illusion of theatre, and those that serve it to their last breath.

Lez Brotherston’s designs, as usual, are brilliant, complemented by Duncan McLean’s sinister monochrome video projection for the ballet within the ballet, by Paule Constable’s lighting, and Paul Groothuis’s sound mix (there’s even taped applause).

A Christmas treat instead of Nutcracker, but wait, Bourne’s Nutcracker is booking from 10 February 2020 for next Christmas at Sadler’s Wells.

Reviewer: Vera Liber