May 2018


The Red Shoes
Ballet by Matthew Bourne
New York City Center
October 27, 2017

Don't Mess with a Classic

The Red Shoes Ballet and Film

by Michelle Marder Kamhi & Louis Torres

Moira Shearer - The Red Shoes

Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine, The Red Shoes film.

For us, as for countless moviegoers, the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes--based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale--is an incomparable re-working of Andersen's dark tale, in the context of a mid-twentieth-century ballet company. Happily for new generations of film buffs and balletomanes it was restored in 2009 (DVD/video) to the full brilliance of its original cinematography. Recalling the effect this exquisite film had had on us when we first saw it years ago, we found it had lost none of its luster when we viewed it again in its restored form.

We were therefore more than a little curious to see what the acclaimed British choreographer Matthew Bourne had done in adapting this classic for the stage. His ballet by the same name premiered in London in December 2016. We saw it at New York's City Center this fall, and regret to say we were not enchanted.

In our view, there were three principal shortcomings. Most important, in the absence of dialogue, the triangle between the demonic impresario Boris Lermontov (a character partly inspired by Sergei Diaghilev of the famed Ballets Russes), the young ballerina Victoria Page, and Julian Craster, the talented composer she falls in love with and marries, lacks the dramatic coherence and intensity of the film. Second, a large part of the film's impact depends on its seamless integration of the gorgeously phantasmagoric balletic re-telling of Andersen's tale with the real-life personalities and struggles of a modern ballet company. Bourne's ballet version succeeds in conveying some of the real-life elements, but it never quite achieves the other-worldly fairy-tale aura of the film.

Finally, as the late critic Roger Ebert observed, "Casting is everything when the characters must move between realism and fantasy, and The Red Shoes might have failed without Moira Shearer [as Victoria Page] and Anton Walbrook [as Lermontov]" (also marvelous, we would add, were dancers Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine). An incandescent, naturally red-haired beauty, Shearer projected an ethereal quality in her fantastic incarnation and a poignant fragility in her role as the film's vulnerable heroine. By comparison, Sara Mearns--a superb New York City Ballet star whom we've admired elsewhere (scroll down)--seemed to us too solid and earthbound in the role.

A revealing footnote to the classic film is that Page's character was inspired by the British ballerina Diana Gould [about]--who had given up her career as a dancer in 1947, following her marriage to the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Despite a very long and happy marriage, Gould later admitted that at times she felt "an agonising nostalgia" for her life in ballet. In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film, the agony felt by Vicky Page at being forced to choose between that creative life and the man she loved is what drives her to her death.