‘The Red Shoes’ is a Triumph: Review

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Red Shoes

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is an unrivalled choreographic triumph. Having seen the performance live in December 2019 (before the pandemic closed theatre doors), I was pleasantly surprised at how well the show translated to the screen. In fact, the screen adaptation seemed to make the art form more accessible, with the ability to zoom in on certain expressions or actions and add infographics to the scenes. 

The story of The Red Shoes is an adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. True to the genre, the main character Victoria is torn between love for her husband and a love for dance. After joining Boris Lermontov’s ballet company, Victoria quickly rises through the ranks to become Lermontov’s prima ballerina. However, after falling in love with Julian Craster, a composer and conductor employed by Lermontov, the latter becomes jealous of their relationship and forces Victoria to choose between love and the company. What follows is the tragic story of the dangers of obsession, represented most fully in the control that the Red Shoes hold over the prima ballerina.

The commanding Red Shoes first appear in a performance given by the Lermontov company. As the Red Shoes move away from fiction to become a reality, the play within a play theme allows Bourne to experiment with many different forms of performance. However, within the dark and tragic story, Bourne wittily provides moments of humorous.

One such moment is the Sand Dance, which as Bourne explains is a homage to a famous Vaudeville Act, first performed in 1928 by Betty Knox, Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel. Bourne continues to instil cultural and historical performances in his pieces, giving them a special place and layers of meaning for so many different people.

Principal dancer Ashley Shaw shines as Victoria Page. A wonderfully strong performer, her acting skills are equal to her technical dancing. She makes the control the Red Shoes hold over her limbs entirely believable and tells the story with her face as much as her body.

However, for me the true star of the show is Glenn Graham, playing the role of the Pimp or the Red Shoes. Graham’s stage presence is unrivalled, a creepy devil-like figure portraying both the temptation and control the Red Shoes hold over Victoria. The choreography that the two characters share together on stage successfully relays the tension and tragedy of the story’s narrative, the lines bold and striking. Bourne also utilises the lighting in an extraordinary way, at one point using the magnified shadows of the Pimp’s hand reaching across the back of the stage to create a claustrophobic impression, one that instills a fear that ricochets off the audience.

In all, The Red Shoes is a show you do not want to miss. Free on BBC iPlayer, now is the perfect time to view Bourne’s masterpiece. Whether you are a long-term fan or dipping your toes into ballet for the first time, you will not be disappointed.

Words by Matilda Martin.

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