The Red Shoes

Key Themes

The key themes of Matthew Bourne's production of The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is the love story of two young artists (one a dancer, one a composer) and the fight between that love and the lure of the highest artistic achievement as represented by Boris Lermontov. The production also explores the fairy tale world of a ballet company and the stories it tells that blend into the real life tale of love, ambition and artistic and personal fulfilment, until the two are barely distinguishable.

Love vs. Art

Ivan Boleslawsky (Liam Mower) and Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite) - The Red Shoes
Ivan Boleslawsky (Liam Mower) and Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite) - The Red Shoes Credit: Johan Persson

One of the main themes that Bourne was keen to explore was the difference between love for an art form and love for a person. When we first meet Vicky Page and Julian Craster, each is so ruled by their individual passion for dance or music, that their relationship is one of rivalry rather than of romance. Like many performers struggling to break into their profession, Craster and Page’s sole intention was to get a job doing what they love – composing and dancing. Increasingly, through shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing, the audience watch and witness a performer’s struggles or barriers along their quest for success. Everyone is interested in what it takes to become a great performer or artist and the sacrifices that are required, and it was this journey that Bourne was keen to capture on stage.

Bourne explains that in the film, The Red Shoes, the fairy tales and the stories that the Ballet Lermontov tell merge with a real-life tale of love, ambition and personal fulfilment until the two are barely distinguishable. An example within Bourne’s stage production can be found at the end of Act Two, when Vicky returns to the ballet company. As she dances The Red Shoes ballet, the fictional characters morph into figures from her personal life, portraying how the boundaries of her art and reality blur together, and how the inner conflict of love vs art ultimately leads to her death. 

Career vs. Love

Julian Craster (Stephen Murray), Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite) - The Red Shoes
Julian Craster (Stephen Murray), Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite) - The Red Shoes Credit: Johan Persson

The Red Shoes is the love story of two young artists and their internal struggles between love and the lure of highest artistic achievement. This premise is opposed by Lermontov, who believes one cannot be a great artist if distracted by love. This theme is prominent in both the stage and film productions. Vicky enjoys fame and success as a single, soloist dancer, however, her choice to live a life out of the spotlight with the man she loves ultimately ruins her career. On leaving the company, dancing in an East End Music Hall is not enough for Vicky and she chooses to leave Julian in order to reinstate her career and stardom. 

When creating his new production, one of Bourne’s most satisfying challenges has been portraying the intense triangular relationship between Lermontov, Vicky and Julian. “The more I’ve watched the film, the more I’ve realised how messy that relationship is. Vicky and Julian fall in love while they’re working together on The Red Shoes balletand, really, they’re only happy together inside that burst of creativity. Afterwards, it doesn’t work so well and I’ve actually found myself sympathising with Lermontov’s position: that love and art don’t always go together.”

Lermontov’s character is likened to that of Russian ballet-impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev had a romantic and professional partnership with Vaslav Nijinsky but later fired him after Nijinsky impulsively married another company dancer, Romola de Pulszky, from the corps-de-ballet. Like Vicky’s character, Nijinsky subsequently failed to find the level of success he had previously, once he had disrupted his career with a love affair. 


Boris Lermontov (Adam Cooper) - The Red Shoes
Boris Lermontov (Adam Cooper) - The Red Shoes Credit: Johan Persson

Obsession, arguably, is one of the attributes often associated with the ballet world, when imagined by the layman. It is universally accepted that to reach success in the performing arts, particularly as a ballet dancer, one must make many sacrifices and be obsessed with their art. Matthew Bourne does not focus his depiction of the ballet world on a company full of resentment, rivalry and jealousy. However, we do see brief moments and references, particularly in rehearsal scenes within the ensemble. 

Obsession is seen in a number of ways throughout The Red Shoes. Characters show their obsession with their art form, success and stardom. These obsessions are predominantly portrayed when we get a glimpse into the character’s thoughts and feelings. Like a monologue, the audience are invited into the character’s thought process, aiding them in understanding their personality, actions and narrative better. During Act One, Julian Craster performs an impassioned solo exploring his creative process and excitement at composing a new work. In Act Two, he tries to replicate the success he once had by repeating key motifs and phrases from his original solo, but nothing seems to be working or falls into place, much to his frustration. 

Vicky Page’s obsession with dance is first evident in her performance at Lady Neston’s soiree. She performs in a passionate, expressive state of ecstasy which heightens her disappointment when she is shunned by Lermontov through his admiration for Julian. Furthermore, when the company are rehearsing Les Sylphides, as tempers flare between the principal dancers and Grischa, we see Vicky slip into a dream-like state, imagining herself captured in a spotlight, performing the central role. It is like the world melts away, and all that is left is Vicky and the dancing. 

Lermontov’s obsession with Vicky Page is portrayed in a more sinister fashion - stalking her from afar during her courtship with Julian. Their relationship ignites an anger in him that causes both Julian and Vicky to leave the company. His anguish is evident as he is seen alone in his chambers, slumped in his chair. However, he is arguably not jealous of their relationship, but more of Julian’s ability to pull Vicky away from the company and her dream career. He is obsessed with Vicky’s talent, in moulding her into a star, and having ultimate control over her and her destiny. When he loses this hold he lashes out and the audience see glimpses of temper and emotion, in an otherwise composed and guarded man.