The importance of character is a key stylistic feature in Matthew Bourne’s productions. During the choreographic process, dancers are directed to conduct specific research tasks to help them understand and take ownership of their character. For Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes, online video footage was a huge source of primary research. Video footage of noted actors, ballet dancers, 1940s dance crazes and movies were often referred to throughout rehearsals to help refine and shape the various characters.
Victoria 'Vicky' Page
When the audience first meet Vicky, she is an unknown, young, beautiful and ambitious ballerina. In the 1948 film, the role was played by Moira Shearer from The Sadler’s Wells Ballet whose fiery red hair became an iconic feature of her character. In the film version, Vicky was introduced as coming from a family of great wealth and nobility who dreams of being a star with the Ballet Lermontov. In Bourne’s production, he chose not to portray her as a product of privilege and instead focussed on her struggle to stardom.
After a successful audition and the injury of the company’s prima ballerina, Vicky is cast as the lead in Lermontov’s new production, The Red Shoes. Although, initially, she does not see eye to eye with the young composer Julian Craster, they eventually fall in love, much to the disapproval and jealousy of Lermontov creating a complex triangle between the three. She is pulled in two directions - her love for her career in dance with Lermontov’s company, and her love for Julian - which results in tragedy.
The majority of Vicky’s movement style is characterised by her grounded, more modern quality. The reason she stands out is because she dances differently to other dancers of her generation; she is very fluid, more earth bound and breathy, and demonstrates a greater use of her back and torso.
The role of Lermontov is partially based on the legendary ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. However, for Bourne’s version, throughout the research and creative process, J. Arthur Rank (founder of the Rank Organisation) and director/producer of the 1948 film, Michael Powell, also became an important influence for Lermontov’s character. Bold, ruthless and charismatic, Lermontov fiercely believes that there is no place for love if one wants to achieve great success. Although initially dismissive of Vicky, he eventually sees her potential, and believes she could be the future star of the company. He is filled with jealousy when he discovers that she is in love with Julian and fires him.
Lermontov’s character is portrayed through his physicality, being one of stature, assurance, power and dominance. Although his authority and his presence are asserted, the audience are shown his true emotions through dance in a few key scenes, for example, his pas de deux with Vicky at his Monte Carlo mansion. His choreography appears mature, proud, manipulative and strong, as he leads her through various supports, lifts and turns. Whilst Vicky’s focus is always projected out towards the audience, his eyes remain fixated on her. A contrasting example would be his anguished solo in his private quarters, seen in Act Two, as he contemplates life without Vicky, the star of his ballet.
A young composer and conductor hired by Lermontov after his riveting performance at Lady Neston’s soiree. At first, it is clear that he is dictated and governed solely by his passion for music. His stubborn love of his art form initially causes a rift between himself and Vicky, when he rejects the printed music Vicky provides for her audition and instead performs one of his own rousing works. Julian gains professional success and recognition after he is chosen to compose the score for Lermontov’s new ballet The Red Shoes. However, Julian is forced out of the company by Lermontov after his relationship with Vicky is exposed.
Like Lermontov, Bourne explains there were challenges when faced with creating movement to portray Julian’s character. He is a musician, not a dancer, and, in keeping with Bourne’s style of storytelling, the character has to use movement to convey his narrative, thoughts and feelings. An example of how Bourne achieves this can be seen in Act One, when Julian is left alone at the piano. Starting with a few simple gestures and notes on the piano, the phrase builds in momentum to show his passion and thought process when creating a new score for the company. The movement develops from acting based gestural language to energetic, expressive virtuosic dance sequences which demonstrates the influence of Fred Astaire on Bourne’s choreography. Initially, Julian’s movement vocabulary is more subtle than other characters’, yet this solo builds in momentum as his passion rises, culminating in explosive leaps and turns, mirroring the crescendo in the music.
We are first introduced to Irina in the opening ballet ‘Countess Tamara’s Dilemma’ where she dances wearing a glamorous and striking shimmery romantic tutu. Irina is the company’s Prima Ballerina. She makes her high status evident by parading her costume around the stage on a hanger, in an homage to Alicia Markova. Vicky is only able to make her impression once Irina suffers an injury, preventing her from dancing the lead role in Monte Carlo.
Ivan is the male lead of the Ballet Lermontov and is paired with Irina in the opening pas de deux and technical rehearsal. Originally played by Robert Helpmann, Ivan demonstrates diva-like behaviour as he struts around the stage in a silk dressing gown and matching headband. Furthermore, the character of Ivan is very similar to that of Rudolf Nureyev, one of Russia’s most celebrated dancers of the twentieth century. This further evidences how Bourne has developed his characters using real life dancers. It is clear that Ivan is passionate and dedicated to his work with the company. He is also quite self-obsessed and demonstrates his big ego through his confident, cocky and larger than life demeanour.
Grischa Ljubov/ The Pimp
Originally played by Leonide Massine, Grischa plays an important role in the running of Ballet Lermontov. He is the company’s Ballet Master and choreographer; teaching the daily company ballet class and rehearsing the dancers for both new and established ballets in the company's repertoire. He is also the principal character artist for the Ballet Lermontov. As often found in many ballet company hierarchies, character roles are given to senior members of the company who are required to act as well as dance. In Grischa’s case, he is required to play to role of The Pimp in The Red Shoes ballet. Like any stereotypical ballet master, he is described as highly-strung but a technically brilliant and expressive dancer with a strong presence.
The Ballet Lermontov
Under the direction of Boris Lermontov, Ballet Lermontov is a world-leading ballet company.
In Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes, the company reside in London’s Covent Garden but tour extensively whilst generating a wide yet versatile repertoire. With Irina and Ivan being the principal dancers and Grischa as their ballet master, the company have defined hierarchical roles that are typical of a traditional ballet company. However, the company are a tight-knit group and everyone contributes to its success.