Bourne again: 'The Red Shoes'

1_THE_RED_SHOES_Photo_by_Johan_Persson.jpg"The Red Shoes" photos by Johan Persson.

It was just a matter of time. When would Matthew Bourne attempt to cross Niagara on a wire? That is, make his stage version of the ever-enthralling Powell-Pressburger film, "The Red Shoes." Even if -- only a dare-devil would undertake such a feat.

He says himself that "it took 20 years" of musing on it, of hectic producing and creating other dance shows -- to a point of his being the most popular contemporary choreographer world-wide today. In other words, would he feel confident enough with his success, which includes the honor of knighthood, to do the deed?

4_THE_RED_SHOES_Photo_by_Johan_Persson-V.jpgThe answer, of course, is, yes, and "The Red Shoes," his engaging gloss on the Oscar-winning movie that has also won other universal awards -- not to mention the hearts/minds of movie and dance fans since its 1948 release -- is causing rapture everywhere it plays and here at the Ahmanson in its U.S. premiere.

All the elements find their way on stage: the ballet within the movie, namely, Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the girl who wished to slip on the gleaming red satin ballet shoes in the window and dance the night away -- but then finds herself trapped in them, and can't stop their demonic journey until she gets literally danced to death.

(Lovely. A metaphor we know for all the young, aspiring obsessive-compulsive ballet dancers who come to grief.)

And then there's the screenplay itself, which tells the same story but with real life characters in the dance world. Bourne suggests them all. He also fashions the choreography for the ballet-within-the-ballet; the debutante ballerina who is given the role of a lifetime; her cohorts and masters; her one-and-only-love, the ballet's composer.

What's more, he creates a movement narrative. Because Bourne tells a story as dance theater, strictly without words, there are his signature ensemble divertissements to carry things along. A favorite one would be the beach-ball frolic at Monte Carlo with its cartoonish hi-jinks, showing the Lermontov Ballet Company members at their summer retreat.

For music he turns to excerpts from Bernard Herrmann's various film scores -- momentous, mysterious, often engulfing and able to effectively raise the theatrical level to narrative needs.

And you can't discount all the rest of the dancing, with the main characters in identifying solos, duets, trios masterfully performed. Nor the cleverness of the stagecraft.

But what comes back to me over and over, thank you Sir Matthew, are the indelible scenes from the movie, the rich images that won't be shoved aside, the compelling drama that stops you in your tracks.

What Powell and Pressburger conjured is the deliciously haute atmosphere of a European arts-world realism, circa 1948. The time some years after Russian elites had fled to and inhabited Paris and London where they lifted their own creative quotient, through collaboration, to a zenith.

Imagine: Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, connecting with painters like Cocteau, dancers Nijinsky and Pavlova, choreographer George Balanchine, composer Igor Stravinsky et al. And did these movie masters make a feast of the material. Not as museum pieces, though. But as up-close fictionalized beings whose instincts and needs and passions and style revealed those entities down to their very fiber in "The Red Shoes."

Needless to say, the film is captivating -- its art direction and its utterly vibrant Technicolor (now restored), not the least of it; its skill in taking us to the interiors of this human realm. There's the Diaghilev figure, Boris Lermontov, and Anton Walbrook plays him as the unremitting autocrat -- resplendent in a silk dressing gown, presiding in his luxe office/suite, breakfast tray before him while he hardly deigns to look up at the various supplicants, one of them at the piano sampling different themes of ballet music.

In the now-famous dialogue between this suffer-no-fools impresario and ingénue Vicky Page, he asks: "Why do you want to dance?" To which she answers: "Why do you want to live?"

And that sets the tone, in this upscale scene where he'd been subtly set upon by the gorgeous redhead (Moira Shearer) who will fatally become his prima ballerina.

His horror at her eventual bloody death when she leaps onto the tracks of an oncoming train (with the fabled red shoes still on her feet), defines the anguished conflict. Which will it be: her heart's need to dance or to be with the man she loves, who demands her exclusively.

Yet there's nothing forced. There's no cliché. Not even when company director Lermontov appears onstage before the curtain and says to a waiting audience that the ballet "The Red Shoes" -- will never play again. It was made for her and only her.

Now Lermontov (Walbrook) is really the other half of Victoria Page, kindred spirits in their hell-to-pay beliefs. Martin Scorsese singles him out as the figure "who haunts my dreams."

But whatever Bourne intended, he did not compete with that assessment when he cast Sam Archer, who, in no way, resembles the movie Lermontov. Nor, on opening night did he coach him to be that distinctive character. A Clark Gable look-alike, Archer was only mildly in charge, rather nondescript as company chief and artistic arbiter.

Instead, we got a parody of a company ballet-master in Glenn Graham, who strutted around, with his puffed-out chest, jutting jaw and arched brow -- correcting dancers in class by tapping them with his cane. Yes, he was funny. And yes, we prize Bourne for his acute eye in spotting types we all know and blowing them up to caricature size.

Just remember that the film boasted two marvelous personages, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who each lent profoundly real dancer identities. He left them alone.

Otherwise the cast members acquitted themselves brilliantly. The dancing, as always in this company, boasted style and gusto and virtuosity. Ashley Shaw was the very picture of the dance-or-die Victoria Page. And the audience adored the whole thing.

It runs through Oct. 1. The film can be downloaded on YouTube

red-shoes-movie.jpgMoira Shearer and Anton Walbrook, "The Red Shoes," 1948

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