Matthew Bourne’s productions are renowned for their high production values and he works closely alongside a network of long-time creative collaborators to bring his stories to life.
High production value has become a staple of a New Adventures production. The set, costumes and lighting are integral parts of Bourne’s works and are designed with meticulous attention to detail. Like the movement, the set and costume reflect the era as a result of extensive research. The Sadler’s Wells Ballet, The Ballets Russes and prominent dancers throughout dance history were researched to inform the accuracy and detail of the various costume designs. On the other hand, the set design influences and drives the narrative forwards, creating a visual feast whilst guiding the audience through complex split scenes and various geographical locations.
Matthew Bourne starts thinking about a production years in advance. In this case, creating a show based on The Red Shoes had always been in Bourne’s mind, but had never quite come to fruition. However, a discussion to finally turn the much-loved film into a New Adventures production began a two-year process to take the idea from concept to stage.
Once Bourne has a concept, story or idea for a new show, he meets with Lez Brotherston (set/costume designer) to discuss ideas and decide on a shared vision for research and design. Locations, eras, time of day, plot development, intentions and moods are all discussed in order to build a foundation for Brotherston’s designs. Brotherston conducts extensive research using photography, books, video footage and the internet in order to create mood boards and models which he later presents to Bourne over a series of creative meetings. A model of the set design is used to determine its potential use in choreography and allows alterations to be made to the design prior to its construction.
One of the main challenges faced by Lez Brotherston was Bourne’s intention to portray both the offstage and onstage worlds of a ballet company. Throughout Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes, several on-stage rehearsals and ballet productions occur, and Brotherston’s task is to help to audience distinguish between the two. To achieve this, Brotherston designed the most prominent feature of the set – a rotating mechanical proscenium arch. It features heavy, blood-red curtains which help to frame the stage. It is embellished with a dense gold trim and tassels with an oversized gold emblem in the centre of the arch creating a strong indication of Ballet Lermontov’s wealth and finesse. The proscenium is automated and can rotate as well as move upstage and downstage and it is used magically throughout the production to aid in defining space and location.
During ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet (at the end of Act One), the proscenium arch glides forward, establishing a theatre setting and signifying the beginning of a performance. As the curtains part, four starkly white panels fall into place to create a new and dramatically monochrome proscenium arch and wings. This level of contrast helps the audience to recognize the significance and importance of the featured ballet ‘The Red Shoes’ within Bourne’s overall production. In Powell and Pressburger’s film ‘The Red Shoes’, the backdrop animations consisted of 130 oil paintings by Bauhaus-trained painter Hein Heckroth. In Matthew Bourne’s version, a white backdrop acts as a cyclorama in order to use projections, designed by Duncan McLean, to depict various locations and effects, removing the need for additional set.
The white set, monochrome costuming and use of projection indicate that the Ballet Lermontov are pushing the boundaries in terms of their new productions, and exploring something much more modern and abstract in conception than the more traditional romantic ballets of the time
The proscenium arch has many other functions throughout the production and it is useful in creating a ‘split-screen’ space to highlight different locations or narratives. An example of this can be seen in Act Two, where a single curtain peels open (stage left) to reveal what happens ‘behind closed doors’. We get a glimpse into Lermontov’s luxurious private quarters and see him in a state of frustration and anguish at the loss of his star dancer, Vicky Page. The proscenium then rotates to create a split scene, with Julian and Vicky bed in their East London Flat (Stage Right). The audience gets an insight into their private world, as we see their depression born from the unfilling and uninspiring state they have ended up in. This device portrays that the action is happening simultaneously and helps to connect the emotion of both scenes and heighten the narrative drama.
The Red Shoes features a variety of locations and Brotherston’s design is paramount to the audience’s comprehension of place and time, as we travel from Covent Garden to Monte Carlo to the East End of London, from rehearsal room, to stage, to coastal resort to a seedy music hall. Some scenes are abstract in their design whereas most scenes are more realistic in their aesthetic.
A device often used is to introduce the audience to a new scene through a ballet performance by Ballet Lermontov, that segue ways into the real-time narrative. An example of this is when the company travel to Monte Carlo. The scene opens with the company dancing in period styled bathing suits in front of a white and blue striped backdrop. Whilst a specific location is not portrayed; the abstract set design complements the dancers’ sea-side attire and swimming inspired movement. The choreography is very performative; establishing it as piece of repertoire, but it then breaks into more naturalistic, pedestrian and gestural movement as other members of the company stroll into the beach scene. As the ballet continues, a more literal set is formed before the audience’s eyes; that of Lermontov’s coastal holiday mansion. The performers help set up the space by setting white verandas to create Lermonvov’s ocean view balcony, and bringing on the piano and model box, which is a mini version of the set design for The Red Shoes Ballet. The backdrop is a dark shade of blue with white fluffy clouds. The bottom metre of the backdrop is a mirror dressed to look like the reflective surface of the ocean.