Life begins to imitate art, and the boundaries of fantasy and reality are blurred in Matthew Bourne’s sensational production of The Red Shoes. The Bristol Hippodrome plays host to this must-see production until Saturday, and it serves to maintain Sir Matthew’s reign as Britain’s Ballet King with dazzling choreography, inventive staging and a cunningly devised musical palette. Such a ravishing and intense work needs a musical underscore to match, and the producers scored an absolute blinder by settling on the music of Bernard Herrmann. The composer’s work dominates, with just a little Chopin added into the mix – largely accompanying the more ‘classical’ ballet sequences. Herrmann’s own scores and concert works, namely Hangover Square (or the ‘Concerto Macabre’ inspired by it), Citizen Kane (or indeed his concert piece Welles Raises Kane), the ‘Currier and Ives Suite’, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, and Fahrenheit 451, accompany more modern choreography with the latter underscoring the ballet within the ballet that gives the show its title.
Such ‘show within a show’ concepts have of course been done before – The Phantom of the Opera and Funny Girl spring to mind, but it is done with daring and panache in this production; the action turning on a dime from ‘on stage’ to ‘back stage’, aided by a nifty pirouetting centre proscenium arch.
The story follows a young ballerina who is plucked from obscurity by an obsessive impresario and given the lead role in a new ballet called The Red Shoes. The company’s other productions flow along to Chopin, while its backstage antics (and spare-time revelry) are all Herrmann. An audition/rehearsal is accompanied by the ‘Overture’ from Welles Raises Kane (aka ‘Chronicle Scherzo’ in the original score); it’s perfectly in tune with the action – ebullient and just a little cocksure; while a day out at the beach is served up with the colourful and light-hearted ‘Ragtime’ from the same. With a new production in the works, the composer attempts to fathom out the score to the tune of sections of the ‘Concerto Macabre’ – a highlight moment as he leaps about the grand piano, playing in time to the score and eventually taking up the baton in a clever and visceral connection between dancer and music. That music looms larger in the second half too…
Herrmann’s Fahrenheit 451 score takes over as the stage is reframed in a jagged aperture (a moment befitting a Saul Bass title sequence). It’s a jolting change in tone from the more cavorting romance of the prior selections, with the world of The Red Shoes (our ballet within a ballet) being that much darker, passionate and ever so slightly manic. The central character, a ballerina, is preyed upon by an obsessive benefactor and gifted a pair of red ballet shoes. She dances, and dances, and dances, seemingly unable to break the spell of the man’s invisible grasp (or the shoes) until she dies. The staging here is stunning; inky silhouettes and rear projection – the movements as florid and bloodied as the score beneath (and penetrating, thanks to a great speaker system).
When the performance is done, the dancer leaves the company for love (the composer!), but is pursued by the impresario who wants her to return to the ballet stage. With that, her own life begins mimic that of her character in The Red Shoes; the final scenes dazzlingly chaotic as she finally succumbs to his wishes, and the shoes. The central proscenium arch spins so that we too are left unsure as to what is on stage (imagined), and what is off (real). She dances, and dances, and dances, until…
The ovation at the end was of course for the dancers, though I think I stood for the music too. It was brilliantly re-imagined in places, by the great Terry Edwards, and recorded so beautifully that it really did seem like a live performance. Herrmann’s music has a rhythm and soul that is so suited to dance, and its application here proves yet again just how ahead of his time he was as an artist, and just how vital his music continues to be. He’d thrilled I’m sure.
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 8 April before continuing on its national tour. Visit new-adventures.net/the-red-shoes/tour-dates for full detals. Thanks to Nicola Guy and the team at Bristol Hippodrome.