Review: ‘The Red Shoes’ at Kennedy Center Opera House

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Generations of budding ballerinas have lusted after the shiny crimson satin pointe shoes in the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes. Who can resist those shoes, they make the wearer dance, and dance, and dance. This week the Kennedy Center Opera House is filled with ballet lovers captivated by the red shoe mystique. Matthew Bourne’s theatrical production re-imagines the Emeric Pressburger-Michael Powell film as a wordless evening of movement theater with mixed results.

Sam Archer. Photograph by Johan Persson.

Bourne, the British director and choreographer, has long demonstrated his love of classics. His Swan Lake featured a prince discovering his sexuality and a gaggle of bare-chested male swans, while his Sleeping Beauty, seen here two seasons ago, was populated with vampires. His Edward Scissorhands, Dorian Gray, and Play Without Words all evoke classic movies.

Bourne’s The Red Shoes is a riff on the Technicolor movie, using a recorded score from Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Hermann. Like the film, it pits art against life. Art wins. Usually an astute storyteller, here Bourne has trouble boiling down the narrative into a compelling performance without dialogue. He does maintain the vivid color and heightened musicality of the motion picture, but paring down the story to essentials denudes it of some of its drama.

Victoria Page is a young ballet dancer vying for a company job and, ultimately, stardom. She convinces – through the help of her overbearing mother – impresario Boris Lermontov to hire her for his world-renowned European company, with its repertory of classic and cutting-edge choreography. As a rising starlet, Page gets a shot at the spotlight when the lead ballerina suffers an injury: a Broadway plot line for the ages, which differs from the film when the lead ballerina marries and leave the company.

Lermontov sets his sights on Page’s stardom and becomes jealous when she takes up with a handsome, young composer, Julian Craster. The ballet’s centerpiece is a realization of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a spare, black and white mid-century modern vision of a dancer caught up in the enticing life of an artist.

Ashley Shaw and Sam Archer. Photograph by Johan Persson.

The 16-member cast of the New Adventures company is exceedingly attractive and adept at bringing Bourne’s ideas to fruition. They dance with the flair of storytellers but remain mindful of ballet’s demanding technical precision. As Victoria, Ashley Shaw resembles the film’s ardent lead, the exquisite Moira Shearer, and we understand her best in her heart-breaking duet with Julian – American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes on opening night. The pair have been rejected by Lermontov after their affection rankled the possessive producer. Down on their luck performing at low rent music halls instead of grand opera houses, their relationship frays. We see that conflict danced out in tensile angles. Gomes, too, demonstrates his capacity for dramatic storytelling in a solo that makes visual his conductor’s creative process in musical composition. The interpretation is of an artist at work, discovering the subtleties and gaudiness of Hermann’s music. It’s a compelling visualization of an artist in process. Alas, Sam Archer’s Lermontov – a Diaghilev or Balanchine-like figure – does not inhabit the severity and control that an old-school impresario would exhibit, which puts Shaw at a disadvantage – her struggle between her director and her beloved composer isn’t as compelling as it could be.

And that’s one of the best elements of Bourne’s Red Shoes: he shows artists hell-bent on perfecting their art. Act one is filled with backstage rehearsal scenes and artistic encounters. The company, dressed in their rag-tag rehearsal togs a la mid-1940s, dance through sections of a 20th-century classic, Les Sylphides, an homage to Romanticism set to an aching Chopin piano score. These show-within-a-show moments are a Bourne trademark that pays homage to the past in smartly succinct vignettes.

Marcelo Gomes and Ashley Shaw. Photograph by Lawrence Ho.

Act two features a Gatsby-esque party for the dancers, who Charleston, tango, and conga with abandon overlooking the Mediterranean seas on the French Riviera. The talents of designer and frequent Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston are a key element in interpreting the work. He remains loyal to the saturated colors of 1940s Hollywood and the centerpiece is a show curtain and a stage-within-a-stage that spotlights the onstage/backstage tensions that percolate within a ballet company. (On opening night, a chandelier flew in too early and the internal show curtain got stuck causing a nearly 10-minute pause. “Safety first,” Bourne remarked after the performance.)

There is much to like about this lavish, lovingly-conceived production, but, it can’t, and shouldn’t, upstage the classic film. For those planning to attend, do your homework, re-watch the Powell/Pressburger movie. It will enhance your enjoyment. In the movie, Lermontov asks young Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” He responds, “I must.” And Vicky says, “That’s my answer to you.” The Red Shoes is a full immersion in the art of living a fully committed creative life. Let’s hope this re-telling inspires another generation of ballerinas enamored of shiny, red satin slippers that inspire the dance.

Running Time: About 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes plays through October 15, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.