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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 17, 2017
Category: review

Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes: Piggyback Ride to Nowhere New

By Rachel Straus

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic film The Red Shoes was a surprise hit with audiences because of its sheer style: a technicolor phantasmagoria of blood reds and oceanic blues that distilled on and off-stage visions of a dance company, modeled after the The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1937-1968). Perhaps the most famous dance film ever made, it describes an insular world in which high-strung artistic personalities, speaking multiple tongues, flourish. It camps ballet’s many stereotypes–dancers are masochistic, pain and pleasure are kissing cousins, woman is intrinsically dependent on man. If she upsets the sexist paradigm, it will be her doom. The film’s apex is a 15-minute surrealist ballet, reminiscent of painting by Dali, that foreshadows the ultimate fate of ingénue ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer): she falls or throws herself under a train.

In this bourgeois realm, art is dangerous to women; they can’t have satisfying love and a stellar career. This is a message ripe for a reinterpretation. Unfortunately, British choreographer Matthew Bourne adheres to the original stereotype in his 2016 ballet based on and titled after the film. And while it may be unfair to compare the two media, Bourne’s choice, not only of the Hans Christian Anderson tale but of its Powell-Pressburger interpretation, makes such a side-by-side inevitable. Seen in its New York premiere at City Center on November 3, Bourne’s ballet version is ersatz camp, an inferior substitute for the genuine object.

In the original Red Shoes, suffering looks glamorous. For example, Victoria is pushed to her physical limit in a studio, but it is inside of a Monte Carlo mansion with mouth-watering vistas of the Mediterranean Sea. In Bourne’s remake, glamour is excised and replaced with hardworking stage craft. The piece is saved somewhat by Lez Brotherston’s set, which wondrously rotates, drops, and glides. And Duncan MacLean’s projections of menacing hawks and ravaging storms metaphorically reflect the maiden’s tumultuous, psychological undoing while wearing those red shoes. But this is eye candy, Disney on Broadway (and part of the reason the show’s two-week run sold out).

All leads in his London-based troupe, Adventures in Motion Pictures, Bourne’s dancers–Ashley Shaw (as Victoria Page), Dominic North (as composer Julian Craster), and Sam Archer (as the sadistic ballet impresario Boris Lermontov)–try their best to overcome his cartoon-like characters, as they race from one scene to the next to outline the plot: Victoria is torn between her man Julian’s conventional love and impresario Lermontov’s demand that she love just one thing: The Dance.

Maclean’s rapid, time-lapse montage masks the fact that Victoria doesn’t dance herself to death, at all. We see her being picked up by Julian, over and over again. North, ironically, was the one who looked like he was about to drop at the scene’s end.

In fact, all the dancers, near the end of their New York run, looked tired, or perhaps bored. The 16 performers played multiple parts and were given as many costume changes as steps. Paul Groothius’s high-amplitude sound design did no favors to the recorded music, comprised of excerpts of Bernard Herrmann film scores.

After the show, I overheard one woman say to her girlfriend, “We should watch the movie again.” Indeed. The film is gratifying not only for its visuals but because it deals with important subjects while not taking itself too seriously. Bourne’s version piggybacks on the movie’s elements, but doesn’t take them anywhere new. Women and ballet look old-fashioned, and unimportant.

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