United States Bernard Herrmann, The Red Shoes: Soloists and artists of New Adventures. Opera House, The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 10.10.2017. (RRR)
Boris Lermontov – Sam Archer
Victoria Page – Ashley Shaw
Julian Craster – Marcelo Gomes
Irina Boronskaja – Anjali Mehra
Ivan Boleslawsky – Liam Mower
Grischa Ljubov – Glenn Graham
Direction and Choreography – Matthew Bourne
Visual Design and Costumes – Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design – Paule Constable
Matthew Bourne’s award-winning ballet The Red Shoes, based on the 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had its Washington, DC première at the Kennedy Center on October 10. I came for the music, but stayed for the dancing.
Let me explain. To refresh my memory of the plot, I watched Powell and Pressburger’s famous film for the first time in some years. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, it tells the story of a maestro (Lermontov) and a striving ballerina (Victoria), who receives a pair of red shoes that will not allow her to stop dancing – leading to her death. She is torn between her obsession, and her love for the ballet’s composer.
Of course, there is a big difference between love and obsession. The latter carries an element of menace, seen in Victoria’s self-destructive behavior, and in Lermontov’s mania for making her a star. Life imitates art as the fictional becomes the real. Though I was entranced by the film, I wondered how could a full ballet version would fare. Bourne was audacious to attempt it. As part of his concept, he abandoned the film’s Academy Award-winning score by Brian Easdale (only 15 minutes long), and substituted music of one of the very finest film composers, Bernard Herrmann – an inspired choice, since his music is largely about longing and obsession.
In the Playbill program interview, Bourne explained: “Who knew Citizen Kane had such danceable music, and has there ever been a more bittersweet and moving film score than that for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?” (Bourne also tapped two other Herrmann film scores: Hangover Square and Fahrenheit 451, all arranged by Terry Davies.) Bourne is right about the haunting yearning in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The score is saturated with a theme the composer used in his exquisite Clarinet Quintet, Souvenirs de Voyage, filled with his hallmark aching lyricism. This wistful theme perfectly expresses that mysterious heartache that romance often awakens but can never fully satisfy.
Listening to more Herrmann scores, I was struck by how many were based on ingenious variations of this principal theme, including North by Northwest, Marnie, Fahrenheit 451, and Vertigo. His obsessiveness makes his music perfect for The Red Shoes; one wonders why Bourne was the first to come up with the idea.
There were many deft touches in the staging and choreography. One nice moment: Lermontov carrying Victoria into the spotlight as he entices her into the prospect of stardom. The revolving proscenium arch placed viewers in the audience in one instance, and then backstage in the next. In a scene in the second act, the arch split the stage in half, allowing Lermontov to hold out one red shoe to Victoria (center downstage) on one side, while the fictional shoe maker offered the other – blurring the border between reality and illusion.
The graveyard scene was a highlight, when the specter of Victoria comes from behind her tombstone and attempts to dance with the priest who is praying for her soul. He simply feels the chill as she passes closely by. Slowly, the reality of her presence becomes apparent to him and, after a pas de deux, he is able to lay her to rest and remove the fatal red shoes. Bourne’s use of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in this scene was perfectly matched, as the movie depicts the growing love between the inhabitant of a house and the ghost of its prior occupant.
Throughout the evening, the dancing was a delight. The New Adventures company members were uniformly excellent, moving with precision and energy. Shaw was very good as Victoria, though her diminutive size worked somewhat against the role’s required stature. The other principals were also fine, though the depiction of Lermontov was missing some gravitas. Glenn Graham was a standout, with tremendous presence and poise.
One partial reservation: In the program notes, Bourne refers to the ballet world including “fey men”. Indeed, the presence of homosexuals in ballet has been an open secret, i.e., when there were such secrets. This was implicit in the film, but little was made of it. Bourne makes it much more apparent, but for what larger purpose? Do we really need to see a male couple in every depicted dance scene? Dramatically speaking, it was a gratuitous diversion, as was the vulgarity in the English music hall scene, though the tawdriness illustrated Victoria’s plight at that moment.
Aside from a glitch that temporarily stopped the production on opening night, there was a problem throughout the evening with the sound level of the recorded music – earsplitting and distorted in louder moments. The Opera House speakers could simply not handle the bass notes at that volume. Memo to the stage manager: turn it down.
For those who delight in the joy of movement in a well-told tale, The Red Shoes is a high-spirited treat.
Robert R. Reilly
The Red Shoes plays through October 15. (Alternating company members are scheduled to assume many of the roles on the days when there are matinees.)