Over 20 years ago—around the time he created his now-celebrated, boldly contemporary production of Swan Lake—Matthew Bourne made a list of potential future projects. Among the titles was The Red Shoes, the iconic 1948 British film that depicts the world of ballet with lush romanticism and at times surreal intensity. Like many, he had fallen under the film’s spell when he first saw it as a teenager.
With his gift for creating theatrically compelling dramatic ballets marked by a sly contemporary wit, Bourne has choreographed his own vivid, engaging versions of works with familiar, even beloved titles. So bringing the celebrated Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film to the stage was the type of challenge on which he thrives. Yet it wasn’t until two decades after he compiled that list that he began its creation.
The resulting production, first seen in London late last year in an eight-week sold out run at Sadler’s Wells (and next at New York City Center October 26–November 5), generated critical and audience enthusiasm. Critics described it as “enthralling” and “a feast for the eye.” The cast of 26 includes leading members of New Adventures, Bourne’s company of versatile dancers. Exclusive for the New York engagement, New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns alternates in the leading role of Victoria Page with New Adventures star Ashley Shaw. For the entire U.S. tour, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Marcelo Gomes shares the role of Julian Craster with New Adventures dancer Dominic North.
“I think it was the lack of a musical world that stopped me from doing The Red Shoes for so long,” Bourne said recently by phone from London. “I hadn’t quite nailed how to make it work musically. What made it really gel in my mind was bringing the Bernard Herrmann music to it.”
Yes, Bernard Herrmann, the New York-born composer (1911–1975) whose name is inextricably linked with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, helped Bourne finally embark on The Red Shoes. “I was considering two separate projects at the time. I was looking for Red Shoes music, and I was considering a Hitchcock-inspired Bernard Herrmann piece.”
He discovered that several early Herrmann film scores—Citizen Kane (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), as well as the later Fahrenheit 451 (1966)—contained music ideal for The Red Shoes. Working with his longtime musical collaborator, Terry Davies, Bourne also incorporated some early concert pieces.
“I thought the music was so right for The Red Shoes. He has this underlying sense of the bittersweet, even when he writes romantically. It suits the story perfectly. His music is wonderful to dance to—and it’s never really been used before. As well as giving you drama and story, it’s very danceable.
“I had to find music that had to serve the ballets within the piece but also the life backstage, things that aren’t musicalized in the film. And also the emotional story: the triangle between the demanding company director Boris Lermontov, composer Julian Craster, and ballerina Victoria Page.”
Bringing to the stage the passions and conflicts of those three pivotal characters—and the world of the ballet company that is their all-consuming focus—clearly fascinated and challenged Bourne. As a company director himself (his New Adventures marks its 30th anniversary this year), he had his own viewpoint on the character of Lermontov and what motivates him.
“He says in the film that ballet is like a religion to him. We took that as a direct character motif—that it’s something he takes more seriously than relationships. It’s a very interesting character because it’s a love story without the sex. He falls in love with Vicky Page for what she can be, and what she can become. She can help him to achieve his vision. And it’s very sad when she leaves him. He’s crushed.
“Of course, there are a lot of negative aspects about Lermontov. But in one sense, he wants what he thinks is best for her. There’s a lot of truth in what he says,” Bourne continues with a hearty laugh. “I’m not disagreeing with him, as a director of a company. Sometimes relationships do get in the way of your work. We like to think today that we can have everything, and you should be able to, of course.
“This is an interesting piece for a dance company to approach. It has a lot to say about the life of a dancer and the world of the dancers—the sacrifices one has to make.”
In addition to finding the ideal score, a crucial aspect of The Red Shoes was the contribution of Bourne’s longtime designer, Lez Brotherston, whose inspired sets and costumes highlighted Bourne’s gothic, sensual Sleeping Beauty seen at City Center in 2013.
“It’s a project Lez really wanted to do as much as I did. He’s outdone himself,” Bourne said of the sets and costumes, which convey the onstage and offstage world of the company, and settings from London to Paris to Monte Carlo. (The production maintains the film’s time period of the late 1940s.) “The set almost dances, it moves so beautifully.
“The big challenge we faced was the Red Shoes ballet. In the film it’s so cinematic, such a technicolor riot. So we had to come up with something equally startling, but in our own way. We’ve almost gone in the opposite direction. It jolts the audience, in the same way it does in the film, because it’s so different from the rest of the piece.”
Susan Reiter is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to TDF Stages, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.