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How Do You Put 'The Red Shoes' On Stage?

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Oct 26, 2017

Matthew Bourne's latest dance-theatre piece reimagines a cinematic classic

Are Matthew Bourne's productions dance or theatre? Considering the range of major stage awards the British director-choreographer has won and his work's crossover success, does it really matter? For 25 years, Bourne's robust, dramatically engaging shows have been captivating audiences on multiple continents, notably his all-male mounting of Swan Lake on Broadway, which earned him Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical in 1999. On October 26, Bourne and his company New Adventures kick off a two-week run of his latest piece, an Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation of the classic 1948 movie The Red Shoes at City Center.

Usually Bourne's productions play lengthy London runs and tour extensively before coming to New York. But The Red Shoes arrives here less than a year after its premiere, and it has dance and theatre fans abuzz. "I think Matthew's works appeal to a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily say they're 'into dance,'" says Daisy May Kemp, a veteran company member who performs several roles in The Red Shoes. "He delivers such a strong narrative that you don't have to be in the dance world to appreciate them. It's about telling a story -- it just happens to be without words."


Bourne had long considered mounting his own take on The Red Shoes, which was written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and based on Hans Christian Andersen's eponymous fairy tale. A passionate and, at times, surreal depiction of a 1940s ballet company, the film focuses on a love triangle between rising ballerina Victoria Page, imperious impresario Boris Lermontov, and intense composer Julian Craster. "This piece is an interesting one for a dance company to approach," says Bourne. "It has a lot to say about the life of a dancer -- the sacrifices one has to make."

It was during the tour for his Sleeping Beauty that Bourne finally decided to try on The Red Shoes for size. "I was casting people from within that production for this, thinking who might be right for which roles," he says. "I knew this was the time to do this piece because of Ashley Shaw. In her we had the right person to play Victoria Page. She's been working with me for some time, but this is her biggest created part. It seemed the perfect role for her -- she's just a total star and also a great actress."


According to Kemp, a couple of early workshops preceded the main rehearsal period as Bourne threw himself into research. "All of the characters on stage are based on real artists of that time," she says. Bourne also insisted his company members bone up on the dance scene of the 1940s, specifically the ballet companies. "Dance has come a long way since then, so he was very keen to keep it of that era," says Kemp. "Very soft in the arms, almost understated. It was a good challenge."

In keeping with the period theme, for music Bourne and his longtime collaborator Terry Davies combined several film scores and orchestral pieces by Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann, who's well-remembered for his work on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), as well as later movies. "His music has this sense of bittersweet, even when he writes romantically," Bourne says. "It's wonderful to dance to, and it suits the story perfectly."

Dominic North, who's worked with Bourne since 2004, performs the role of Julian Craster. "We wanted to stay very true to the film in general, especially those three central characters," he says. "Julian's not a nice character or the usual romantic lead. He doesn't even really like ballet -- he sees it as a lower art form than opera. North studied footage of Leonard Bernstein conducting to inspire his physicality. "Matthew was interested in finding movement for characters who don't move in the film, like Lermontov and Julian," he says. "The members of the dance company in The Red Shoes, they can just dance. But for the other characters, why are they dancing? That was his main focus during our workshops."

Now that The Red Shoes is up on its toes, the cast is excited to play to New York audiences who love dance, or theatre, or both. "It really does straddle two areas," says Kemp, while North notes there's really nothing else like it: "I just think Matthew's found his own way of telling stories."

For the City Center run of The Red Shoes, leads Ashley Shaw and Dominic North alternate in their roles with New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns and American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes respectively.


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages

Top image: Ashley Shaw in The Red Shoes. Photos by Johan Persson.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.