While there are few who would dispute the place Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” holds as the greatest dance film of all time — focusing as it does on the backstage energy and all-or-nothing ambition of a ballerina who quite literally lives to dance, and who dies the instant she allows love to interfere with that commitment — master choreographer Matthew Bourne has actually found a way to improve upon the 1948 classic: For all its pleasures, “The Red Shoes” was rather short on dance, and now, as brilliantly reconceived by Bourne, it is nothing but: a kaleidoscopic pinwheel of color, movement and silent-film-style pantomime perfectly suited to the stage.
Performed without so much as a single word of dialogue, Bourne’s production was first staged in London last year and now makes its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles, where the film is widely known as Martin Scorsese’s favorite, but perhaps less widely seen than it deserves. Audiences would do well to (re-)watch the movie beforehand, if only to clarify the show’s central conflict, which is otherwise not apparent until a beat before intermission, when a passionate embrace between red-headed ingénue Victoria Page and the talented young composer Lucian Crasta threatens to derail both of their careers (a tragic choice of words, considering the role a train plays in her fate).
On screen, where such things are made clear through dialogue, the most recognizable quotation comes from Russian impresario Boris Lermontov, a Svengali-like control freak who believes that to create art is a privilege, and one must be prepared to deny life’s pleasures in its service: “The music is all that matters. Nothing but the music.”
For Bourne, it is dance that takes precedence, and he reworks the now-simplified plot to suit the medium, alternating between solos, duets and full-ensemble arrangements featuring his 17-person cast (the parts rotate from night to night between a company nearly three times that size). The music, meanwhile, belongs to the great screen composer Bernard Herrmann, reassembled from multiple film scores, including “Citizen Kane,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and “Fahrenheit 451” (for the show’s eponymous ballet).
At the performance attended, Victoria Page was played by Ashley Shaw, a petite and nimble redhead who’s equal parts Moira Shearer (the actress who originated the role on screen) and Debbie Reynolds (as seen in “Singin’ in the Rain”), with eyes so big — and so cleverly accentuated by makeup — they read clearly from the back row of the house.
Already well known and widely respected for his revisionist takes on “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella,” Bourne actually follows Powell and Pressburger’s film more closely, but still allows himself some latitude in streamlining the story. For example, in the movie, Page is denied the opportunity to audition for Lermontov at a post-performance soirée, whereas here, it’s the perfect opportunity for the elegant dancer’s first solo.
At a cocktail party where the guests dance a bored waltz, Victoria makes quite the impression on all present, including Lermontov (Sam Archer), earning a chance to rehearse on the maestro’s latest show. But it is not until his prima ballerina (Michela Meazza) twists her ankle that Victoria gets her shot — marking a rather significant change from the movie, where it wasn’t injury but marriage (a voluntary crippling, in Lermontov’s view) that ended her career and clearly established the commitment that was expected of Victoria going forward.
In “The Red Shoes,” love and career are incompatible. In order to achieve greatness, a dancer must choose between them. And as in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale for which it is named (and which serves as the inspiration for the stunning show-within-the-show), that choice is made the moment Victoria straps on the red shoes, for it is then that she commits herself to dance. These ruby slippers, every bit as magic as the ones that whisked Dorothy home from Oz, are pointe shoes, which literally keep the dancer on her toes: She can never rest, never retire, but must keep moving … or else die from sheer exhaustion.
The film cheats “The Ballet of the Red Shoes” in that Powell and Pressburger employ all kinds of visual effects — many of them dating back to the trick films of Georges Méliès — that no dancer could recreate onstage (Victoria steps into the shoes, and through the magic of a cut, they’re instantly laced, while neat splices allow other dancers to appear and disappear at her sides). But Bourne embraces that impossibility, staging this centerpiece ballet beneath a series of white arches, which double as screens on which he’s free to project cinematic imagery.
This is a radical reinterpretation of the movie’s signature sequence, which famously pushed the limits of Technicolor’s three-strip process with an assortment of bold, fluorescent-lit tableaux. By contrast, Bourne’s version is very nearly monochrome — save for the red shoes and the crimson pinstripes of the wicked Shoemaker’s suit — and uses that stark white backdrop to accentuate the dancers’ silhouettes throughout. It is also the only time that Bourne embraces the stage’s traditional proscenium, subliminally implying that “The Ballet of the Red Shoes” is not merely a show-within-the-show; this is the show itself.
To underscore that choice, set designer Lez Brotherston has constructed a smaller proscenium, complete with curtain, which rolls back and forth and rotates as required, often coming to rest at a sharp diagonal that provides theatergoers with a fresh, unconventional angle from which to observe the action. That moving arch situates the audience throughout the show, privileging the backstage view as often as not — as in a series of Monte Carlo performances, in which extravagantly dressed dancers perform with their backs the audience, while facing the footlights upstage. This device evokes not only “The Red Shoes,” but also its post-modern descendent, Bob Fosse’s meta-musical “All That Jazz.”
In those rare instances when the arch disappears altogether, Bourne is free to choreograph playful “offstage” interludes, such as the Busby Berkeley-esque “Ballon de Plage” sequence, set amid a beachside vacation in which the entire cast flexes its muscles in mid-century swimwear. Speaking of costumes, Brotherston outdoes himself in this department, taking cues from the film with its high-waisted pants and French mariner-striped shirts, while inventing an array of other lavish period-inspired looks to accentuate the ensemble’s graceful physiques. But of course, the detail audiences will most remember — the first and last thing on which the spotlight falls — are the red shoes themselves.