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Review: The Red Shoes at Birmingham Hippodrome

Bourne is teaching a new generation of ballet-lovers to think more closely about the plot and its relevance to stage design, the choreography and  the music.

The Red Shoes at Birmingham Hippodrome
****
Johan Persson The Red Shoes from Sir Matthew Bourne's New Adventures - Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page.
The Red Shoes from Sir Matthew Bourne's New Adventures - Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page Credit: Johan Persson

Magicians with formidable creative powers are rare in the 21st century.

But what is even rarer is the desire to make magic in the theatre, magic that is provocative, elusive and inspirational all at the same time.

Yet this is what Matthew Bourne does in abundance and with an exquisite sense of felicity.

Bourne's ballet The Red Shoes is, above all else an exciting piece, which has a wonderful sense of intoxication about it that holds your attention throughout the two hours of the performance.

And to my mind - even more importantly - Bourne is teaching a new generation of ballet-lovers to think more closely about the plot and its relevance to stage design, the choreography and the music. And these things are here in abundance with a remarkable score, and a set dominated by a huge revolving curtain which can take us backstage or forestage with terrific effect.

The Powell/Pressburger film of The Red Shoes (based on a chilling and vaguely cruel story by Hans Andersen) was Bourne's starting off point for the ballet.

Originally starring Moira Shearer as the doomed ballerina Victoria Page (here danced with exquisite grace in a rare and passionate performance by Ashley Shaw) with Leonide Massine as the evil shoemaker who tempts her with the deadly red shoes which, as symbols of pride and an uncontrollable vanity, will eventually be her downfall, inferring that the ballet had a more complex plot that Bourne suggests here.

Perhaps more could have been made of the character who gives the shoes to the girl. Massine's shoemaker was evil incarnate. But Massine was Massine and a legend, whereas the male dancer who appears here is potent and suggests great strength, but the handing over of the shoes is slightly too weak and its significance (the power to destroy the girls) is weakened.

Throughout the evening Bourne has his fun with legendary ballets from the past, using music fro a mixed bag of scores by Bernard Hermann.

When the company takes a vacation in the South of France, you get a memory of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes doing exactly the same thing in the 1920s, (this is meant to be 1948) thus the stage set and costumes with beach balls and swimsuits evoke The Blue Train - Anton Dolin's finest hour.

Elsewhere you get a reference to Jean Cocteau with those unmistakable sexy profiles painted on the flats whilst Serge Lifar's double dances into the light as Icarus given to us via a clever dancer with a gilded torso.

The dancing throughout the evening is vivid, wild when required and occasionally spellbinding.

When Victoria retreats from the Lermontov Ballet and her Red Shoes triumph, through the unbearable jealously of her composer boyfriend, she turns to dancing in a music hall, (like so many real-life impoverished dancers at the time).

It is a delectable moment. Lazy stage crew, and a pushy adagio act are just some of the fun; we even get a sight of Wilson and Keppel (alas, not Betty) doing their droll sand dance dressed in Egyptian gear.

Bourne proves once again, he is a masterly choreographer with skills which transform the stage into a whirl of colour with some dreamy movements for the company.

Amazingly enough he uses the back-tilted heads and flat hands on hips in the surreal Dead City sequence, giving us steps once-premiered a century ago in Nijinsky's earth-shattering ballet L'Apres Midi d'un Faune.

This staged version of a film masterpiece needs the original tragic ending to to lift the piece into high drama. As it is Victoria gets hit by the well-known train, and lives on regardless - needs a re-think Sir Matthew.

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