Turning an iconic dance film into a ballet, Matthew Bourne has reduced a brilliant melodrama to a series of postures and fits. His version of 1948’s The Red Shoes took a raft of prizes in London after its premiere last year. It arrives at New York City Center at a fraught moment for representing relations between men and women. This tale of a novice ballerina who sweeps to fame and finds love after an accident to a Ballet Lermontov star, and then finds herself caught in a battle of wills between a young composer and the troupe’s imperious director, resonates with real dance history; the character of director Boris Lermontov (played here by Sam Archer) has roots in the life of impresario Serge Diaghilev, dead nearly twenty years when the movie was made and by no means forgotten. But the production is swamped by the noisy pastiche of Bernard Herrmann music with which Bourne mostly replaces the film’s original score.
Young Victoria Page, a newcomer to Ballet Lermontov, gets her big break when Irina Boronskaya, the troupe’s prima ballerina, breaks an ankle in rehearsal. As seen on opening night, Ashley Shaw’s legs, not to mention her shoes, are a bit squishy in the part of Page; what’s missing here, and what may be restored at alternate performances when New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns assumes the role alongside American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes as her beau Julian Craster, is genuine, sturdy ballet technique. The members of Bourne’s ensemble, New Adventures, are actor-dancers: They excel at communicating attitude. (The men’s crisp profiles in snappy Forties duds bring to mind Dick Tracy.) But the character of Grischa Ljubov, so winningly played by the dancer, choreographer, and actor Léonide Massine in the film, seems to get lost in this show’s constant swirl of champagne glasses and cigarette smoke. And Bourne returns to the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale for a lot of material; poor Miss Page is driven mad by pointe shoes she can’t control, and that dance her, ultimately, to her death.
The biggest challenge for these artists is to communicate the story without using spoken words. Complex relationships are reduced to cliché gestures. Craster, composer of the titular ballet and beloved of its young star, erupts into spasms of creativity; composers in general probably don’t flit around a studio with quite such fervor while writing music. Nor do costume and set designers. Duncan McLean’s projections provide a lot of excitement that might better emanate from the dancers. The enthusiasm of the City Center crowd is augmented, on Paul Groothuis’s soundtrack, by a terrifying roar of applause and cheering that prefigures the final image of a murderous train.
Costume and set designer Lez Brotherston’s multi-use proscenium arch, which frames a variety of ballets-within-the-ballet in London, Paris, and Monte Carlo, Monaco (not to mention the boudoirs of the romantic leads and their stalking employer, Lermontov), sometimes makes it hard to determine whether we’re watching a rehearsal, a performance, a class, a reception, or simply drinks at a nearby café. The set works hard to give the production the flexibility of cinema, and the costumes are a delight. But to leave the theater reflecting on the design is not the best recommendation for a dance work. If you’re looking for arch, winking entertainment, deeply enmeshed in the aesthetics of postwar Europe, by all means seek it out here. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and rent the movie.