Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes

Molly Leeming reviews Matthew Bourne's ballet production of The Red Shoes, filmed live at Sadler's Wells in London.

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Image Credit: Sadler's Wells

Director: Matthew Bourne
Starring: Ashley Shaw, Dominic North, Adam Cooper
Running time : 1hr 37mins
Rating : U

I will start with a full disclosure: I am almost completely ignorant when it comes to ballet. My prior experience of this revered art form before watching The Red Shoes comprised solely of a handful of ballet classes I took at the age of five - in which, so my parents inform me, I was dismally incompetent- and a single performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid by Northern Ballet in South Shields which I saw in my mid-teens. While my familiarity with ballet is pretty slight, I vividly remember how The Little Mermaid transcended the slightly creaky, cramped stage in South Shields to bring to life an electrifying fusion of movement, music and story that left me unexpectedly moved and entranced.

Matthew Bourne’s ballet production of The Red Shoes is a loose adaptation of the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film of the same name, set to music by the legendary  film score composer Bernard Herrmann. The Red Shoes is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale and tells the story of a ballerina who finds herself having to choose between life, as represented by her romantic relationship with the young composer Julian Craster; and an obsessive passion for her art, as represented by the the red shoes which drive her relentlessly to her fate.

The notion of an artist being ripped apart by the conflicting draws of life and art was reputedly deemed rather silly by Moira Shearer, the star of the 1948 film, who before being an actor was a ballerina at Sadler’s Wells, where this version of Bourne’s production was filmed. However, this story clearly holds a persistent power that has caused artists as diverse as Powell and Pressburger, Kate Bush and now Matthew Bourne to return to it throughout the years.

This production’s debt to cinema does not stop at the influence of Powell and Pressburger, Bourne also uses the music of legendary film score composer Bernard Herrmann, from films as diverse as Citizen Kane, Fahrenheit 451 and the 1945 film noir Hangover Square. The use of Herrmann’s lush film scores works very well, combining with the dancers’ wonderfully expressive performances to create a production in which the emotions of the characters are at the forefront of the story, expressed eloquently not through words but through the interaction between movement, expression, and music.

One aspect of this production that could have been potentially puzzling is the fact that it is a ballet of a film about ballet. Going into it I was unsure whether this would mean it would essentially be an extended version of the 1948 film’s magnificent, deliriously surreal fifteen minute-long ballet sequence. Instead Bourne opts to turn the entire story into a more conventional linear narrative ballet, and while he is never able to quite reach the bizarre, thrilling high of Powell and Pressburger’s iconic ballet sequence, this rather more grounded approach achieves a clear and consistent style which works better spread over 97 minutes than the film’s far stranger style could. The set is dominated by an onstage proscenium arch, which revolves to show us different perspectives, allowing us to watch both the backstage lives of the ballet company and their performances- the ballets within the ballet.

Ultimately, Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes makes for a very good ballet. It handles its somewhat complicated structure cleverly and effectively; it is at different times funny, moving, and nerve wracking; and it is always sumptuous to look at. However, I am not sure that the onscreen version which I experienced really brought the production fully into life.

I am enthusiastically in favour of onscreen versions of live performances. They can be fantastic tools for increasing the accessibility of live forms of art, and this is the case now more than ever, while live performances are still largely impossible due to the pandemic. However, I also feel that these onscreen versions cannot act as a substitute for the experience of being in the same room as the performers, reacting in real time among a crowd of fellow onlookers. In a live performance everyone is always conscious in the back of their mind that anything could happen: the play could go horrifically off the rails; a dancer could fall and break the flow of the choreography; there is even - heaven forbid - the ominously lingering possibility of being dragged into an excruciating piece of audience participation. Without wishing to slide into the realms of pompous cliché, I believe that it is in this hovering, shared sense of constant possibility that the magic of live performance lies.

While with pre-recorded plays part of me still misses this sense of the irrepressible possibility of live performance, I usually soon find myself sucked into the familiar patterns of following a narrative which is more closely related to familiar forms of onscreen storytelling such as film and television. However, I am not quite persuaded by pre-recorded dance yet. I could not help but feel that this highly expressive, abstract form of storytelling was somewhat hemmed in on a screen.

Although the performance of  The Little Mermaid that I saw in South Shields was on a much smaller, squeakier stage, and used the theatre sound system instead of having a live orchestra, I still found myself sucked in by the constantly mobile, powerfully emotive formations of the stage full of dancers. My eyes could roam freely and pick out whichever detail of the constantly shifting performance I chose, without a camera irrevocably picking for me which part of the stage I should be focusing on at any one time.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes was a highly enjoyable watch, and yet I came away from the cinema not completely satisfied, and feeling like there was a fundamental element of the performance that I had not been able to experience. These onscreen recordings are undoubtedly a good thing, and during a pandemic they are as close as most of us will get to seeing this kind of stage performance. Nevertheless, this served for me as a reminder of the elusive and irreproducible power of live performance.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York.

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