Matthew Bourne, master of theatricality, storytelling, dance and drama achieved great success with The Red Shoes, which premiered in 2016. It garnered awards and plaudits from audiences and press alike. It is a labour of love and respect, an homage to the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1948 film of the same name. In many ways, he has literally brought the film to life and given the characters greater depth. In this much welcomed revival, he offers his usual larger than life characterisations with wit and pathos in equal measure. Bourne’s long time collaborator, designer Lez Brotherston, has created an astonishingly good set and costumes that reflect the narrative and are integral to the success of the production. He shows a meticulous attention to authentic detail, thus we feel a certain intimacy while watching. This, combined with Paule Constable’s excellent lighting makes for a very satisfactory, acutely atmospheric experience.
It’s a story about a three way relationship between a young, emerging ballerina, Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite) and her lover, a composer, Julian Craster (Harrison Dowzell), alongside a ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov (Glenn Graham). It’s an intriguing plot governed by Page’s desire to dance, her love of Craster and Lermontov’s wish to control his protégé. Set against the backdrop of a ballet company in the early to mid 20th century and with the added bonus of having a ballet within a ballet, it is boldly imaginative. Highlights include a lighting call for established ballerina, Irina Boronskaja (Michela Meazza), as she struts around the stage carrying her costume for Les Sylphides, joined by leading male dancer Ivan Boleslawsky (Jackson Fisch), cigarette hanging out of his mouth, wafting around, ‘marking’ his steps. It’s amusing because it is an entirely realistic interpretation of how events might have played out at the time. It morphs into some extremely amusing (but accurate) portrayals of company members in class, each with their own personalities and living out their own individual dramas. A rehearsal of Les Sylphides results in Boronskaja injuring her ankle which opens the door for Page to become the focus of Lermontov’s attention. Without meaning to sound churlish, it is all incredibly funny and entertaining. Perhaps because the dancers perform it with such earnestness and there is something very relatable about it.
There’s a funny and enjoyable “Ballon de Plage” set in Monte Carlo and the actual ballet of The Red Shoes. Act Two sees a vibrant end of season party in Villefrance-Sur-Mer and the two lovers leaving the company under pressure from Lermontov to either split up or go. When they choose the latter, they find themselves in a music hall in London’s East End, which entertains with some of the most hilarious passages of choreography. In the end, in spite of her love for Crastor, she returns to Lermontov in Monte Carlo. Of course, many parallels can be drawn with Les Ballets Russes, Diaghilev and so on.
But one of Bourne’s gifts (and there are many) is to cast his dancers appropriately, giving them a platform that shows them at their very best. In his Romeo and Juliet last year, he cast Cordelia Braithwaite as his Juliet. Here, once again, as Victoria Page, Braithwaite proved her worth not only as a consistently strong, lyrical dancer, but as a consummate actress. She was utterly bewitching. A luminous beauty with soulful eyes and an ability to show genuine vulnerability, her performance was an absolute tour de force. She was in good company too. Glenn Graham was superb as Lermontov – chilling, controlling, yet one could see how easily he could cast his spell. Harrison Dowzell’s Craster, was charming, well danced and sincerely acted. Michela Meazza as the precious Boronskaya, as is often the case, almost stole the show with her undeniably brilliant depiction of a ballerina with a sense of self-importance. As her partner, Boleslawsky, Jackson Fisch actually looked as if he had been born to dance in that era. Excellent dancing but always with a slightly affected manner. As the choreographer/ballet master Grischa Ljubov, Liam Mower was equally impressive, displaying his versatility, switching from the role of Boleslawsky at earlier performances, with total conviction.
As the performance reached its tragic conclusion – I had a feeling that I had been subjected to watching episodes of life with real people telling the story in the language of dance – who just happen to be terrific dancers. Not the other way around – very good dancing but a lack of substance in the characterisations. New Adventures arouses very extreme emotions: laughing out loud, identification, excitement, awakening of the senses, heartbreak, sorrow. How aptly named the company is – every show a new adventure.