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Christopher Walker reviews a ‘magical evening of ballet,’ from Matthew Bourne

Choreographer Matthew Bourne was once the enfant terrible of ballet. He is now recognized with an OBE and a knighthood, and is an unquestioned Lord of the Dance, writes Christopher Walker.

His much anticipated new ballet The Red Shoes triumphed when it opened three years ago, and its revival at Sadler’s Wells is a treat. It is a loving homage to one of the greatest British movies.

You may not have heard of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but this dynamic duo were giants of the British movie scene some 70 years ago – a final hurrah before Hollywood triumphed. They made a large number of highly-successful films like Black NarcissusThe Tales of Hoffmann and A Matter of Life and Death, which were adored by critics and audiences alike – none more so than The Red Shoes, released in 1948.

The story is taken from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. A young girl obsessed with dancing is given a pair of magical red shoes, which take possession of her. All goes well at first, but she soon discovers she simply cannot stop dancing, and is driven mad by the spell.

In the movie version the girl is incarnated as Vicky Page, the niece of a grand London society matron, Lady Neston. A gifted dancer she attracts the attention of the great ballet impresario Lermontov (a thinly disguised Diaghilev). Vicky is torn between Lermontov’s determination to make her the greatest ballerina ever, and the love of a young composer, Julian Craster.

Our contemporary Lermontov, Matthew Bourne, confesses he fell in love with this movie of “one girl’s dream to be the greatest dancer in the world.” Bourne created a company called Adventures in Motion Pictures after all. His ballet is very much a love letter to the movie, which meticulously recreates many of the most memorable, stylish scenes – each choreographed as a dance set piece. A lot of the action in both versions takes place in Monte Carlo which also gives some colourful opportunities for staging and costume design (thanks to the gifted Lez Brotherson).

In this revival Ashley Shaw dances Vicky Page and she is outstanding. In an early, well drawn scene we see her in Lady Neston’s London salon capturing the eye of the moody Lermontov (an equally talented Adam Cooper, returning to dance for Bourne after 20 years).

The love triangle that ultimately tears Vicky apart is completed by an energetic Dominic North, dancing the young composer Julian Craster.

As in the film, a lot is made of the different eccentric characters of Lermontov’s ballet company. The grand ballerina Irina who Vicky ultimately replaces (danced by Michela Meazza), the tempestuous dance master Grisha (Glenn Graham), and the lead male dancer Ivan (Liam Mower).

Ivan was played by the legendary dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann in the film. A fun fact for movie buffs – Helpmann bizarrely went on to immortalize the role of The Childcatcher in Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang.

Whilst in so many ways the recreation of the movie is painstaking, Bourne is not afraid to take some liberties. There are notable changes to the plot, an entirely new scene where Vicky is reduced to dancing in burlesque is introduced, and the music composed for the original movie by Brain Easdale is discarded. Bourne uses music by Hollywood composer Bernard Hermann in its place.

A magical evening of ballet. This piece may mean most to fans of the original movie, but it is quite wonderful that London continues to be a centre for such outstanding new dance works.

Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes plays at the Sadler’s Wells until 19 January – www.sadlerswells.com Box office 0207 863 8000

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