The Red Shoes — A Review

A ballerina discovers the price of fame.

The Kennedy Center | October 12 ­– October 15

Photo by Kennedy Center.

The pivotal scene in Matthew Bourne / New Adventure’s The Red Shoes occurs in a dank bedroom in London’s East End. A couple lies in bed, back to back, and an old piano stands in the corner. The man, Julian Craster (Marcelo Gomes), gets up and plays a few bars. The woman, Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw), sits up, pulling her knees to her chest, and listens for a moment. Then the beat, and her patience, end. She drops her feet to the floor, stomps over to the piano, and snatches up his sheet music. But he, knowing the music by heart, keeps playing.

They begin to fight in their ratty pajamas, a furious and tender pas de deux. You can tell they loathe each other by their movements — sharp, straight, strong, unyielding. You can tell they adore each other in moments where the motion stops and they sink into each other’s familiar silhouette.

Exhausted, Julian lies down on the floor, while Victoria drags a box from behind the bed, lifts the lid, and pulls out the red pointe shoes she wore as a rising prima ballerina who once danced at Covent Garden. The music turns eerie and green. Julian’s reaction is immediate. As Victoria slips the shoes on (Gaynor Mindens, for any dancers reading), he leaps to her side, fighting her harder, half dancing and half wrestling, desperately attempting to make her take them off. They both know that once she puts on the red shoes, symbolically reassuming the whole of a famed, lime-lit life, she can never take them off. She can never stop dancing.

The Red Shoes is a story within a story. The outer narrative is the arc of Victoria Page, a promising young dancer who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina, joins the London-based Lermontov company, and falls in love with the composer. Victoria wins the lead role in a ballet version of the Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes. This is the inner narrative, a woman who is tempted by fame and fortune and puts on a pair of magical red pointe shoes. Eventually, she finds she cannot remove them and dances to her death.

We as an audience watch Victoria and the Lermontov company prepare for the performance. We see the behind-the-scenes drama and romance and the thrill of commercial success. We witness the inner narrative of fame and obsession bleed into Victoria’s outer narrative until she can no longer differentiate the two.

The producer, Matthew Bourne, wrote in the playbill, “In today’s culture there seems an obsession with what it takes to become a great performer or artist.” Think of American Idol or Taylor Swift’s behind-the-scenes clips of “Look What You Made Me Do.” We are fascinated by stories of fame and grit, by glimpses into artists’ backstage lives. We are eager to see just how a star is made.

What The Red Shoes offers, which the shows and clips we usually consume do not, is a look into the sacrifices of fame. To our desire for celebrity, for likes and friends and shares and requests, The Red Shoes asks, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” Because fame, in whatever form we attain it, has a cost. Even though all we desire is to be noticed or published or followed or recorded, maybe we, like Victoria Page, are not prepared to pay the price.

Matthew Bourne / New Adventures’ The Red Shoes, winner of two Oliver Awards, is showing at the Kennedy Center October 12 — October 15. Purchase tickets ($29–129) here.