Here’s a homework assignment, if you plan to see “The Red Shoes” at Belk Theater. (You should; it’s extraordinary.) Before you go, watch the 1948 Oscar-winner of that name – the greatest backstage drama about dance ever filmed – or read a thorough synopsis.
Matthew Bourne, whose New Adventures troupe blazed through Charlotte in 2013 with “Sleeping Beauty,” returns with a love letter to that film and ballet itself. We’re lucky to get “Red Shoes,” which plays just four cities on its U.S. tour: Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Charlotte. Bourne and Blumenthal president Tom Gabbard have long been friends, so this became the final show in the 2016-17 Broadway Lights season.
Folks with no background wore looks Tuesday night that said “WTF?” and “WTD”? (As in, “Where’s the dialogue?” The movie has plenty, the show none.) Here’s a little of what you need to know:
Lermontov, an impresario based loosely on Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, becomes the puppetmaster controlling prima ballerina Vicky Page. He’s a Phantom of the Opera-style control freak: If she devotes herself to art under his tutelage, she can become magnificent – at the cost of any personal life.
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Composer Julian Craster creates a ballet for her, “The Red Shoes,” in which accursed footwear dance a woman to death. (This comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, though that story has a happy ending.) Along the way, they fall in love, so Lermontov fires both. Vicky, torn between her heart and her art, must make a terrible sacrifice.
An ordinary review might assess performances: Ashley Shaw’s heart-rending Vicky, Dominic North’s impassioned Craster, Sam Archer’s imperious Lermontov, perhaps Leon Moran’s unsettling work as the satanic shoemaker in the ballet and Liam Mower’s acting as Lermontov’s premier danseur, who can play an ardent lover or dignified churchman. But every role is double-, triple- or quadruple-cast, so you may see other people.
What won’t change is Bourne’s fertile imagination. He and set/costume designer Lez Brotherston use a revolving frame that can put us behind and in front of the “performance area” almost at once or alternate between the dumpy Craster-Page apartment and Lermontov’s elegant digs. (Check out his statue of a woman’s calf leading down into a toe shoe, implying dance doesn’t require a whole human being.) Visual effects in the “Red Shoes” ballet set the mind whirling.
Bourne set all this to Bernard Herrmann’s film music, mostly less familiar stuff. (I heard no Hitchcock scores). Terry Davies reorchestrated it cleverly, so a political ballad from “Citizen Kane” becomes a jaunty tune for the French Riviera. Herrmann often wrote music for characters who are menaced, yearning or disassociated from reality, which fits here.
Bourne can’t convey one crucial element of the film, Lermontov’s obsessive insistence that relationships ruin dancers. (His anger at the couple reads as sexual jealousy.) We see pretty much everything else that’s important to the movie, and he throws in apt ballet references: a “Giselle”-like moment for a ghost and an ex-suitor, realistic excerpts from “Les Sylphides.”
And he has a sense of humor: Two guys dressed as ancient Egyptians do a hilarious, naughty music-hall dance for no good reason. Audience members sat quietly, no doubt puzzled. This is indeed a show for folks who know the territory Bourne explores. But that territory is so worth exploring that any work you put in will pay huge dividends.