Dying for Art in ‘The Red Shoes’; Dying for Love in ‘Layla and Majnun’

Liam Mower and Ashley Shaw in The Red Shoes. Johan Persson

Whatever you may think of Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake—and I myself loathe it for the puerile self-pitying work it is—you can see that it has a consistent point of view and some stage smarts. Other works of his that we’ve seen vary in bearability: the less they depend on actual dancing, the better they are, since Bourne has no discernible talent for setting steps to music. His steps inevitably seem a dutiful response to the necessities of the genre rather than an interest in choreography.

Unfortunately, his latest sortie into narrative ballet is a reimagining of The Red Shoes, the most famous movie ever made about ballet—about dancing itself. The director was the great Michael Powell (together with his partner, Eric Pressburger), the star was the glorious Moira Shearer of the Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet. Anton Walbrook was Boris Lermontov (based on Serge Diaghilev); Léonid Massine created his own solos as the Shoemaker in the Red Shoes ballet, which was choreographed by Robert Helpmann. The whole thing is opulent, passionate, occasionally lurid, constantly stirring; it was a surprise success, and has been an enduring influence.

In 1993 a musical based on the movie played 51 previews and five performances on Broadway. I saw one of them, and you can take it from me that its total failure was a triumph of justice. The Bourne version, which just had a brief run at the City Center, is equally terrible—a mishmash of pretension, confusion, and vulgarity. The vulgarity is not merely the presentation but a deliberate undercutting of the underlying premise of The Red Shoes, which is the human cost of art. Instead of venerating ballet, Bourne takes the cheap way out by parodying it, calling on all the old jokes that have kept the Trocks going for so many years and that inform Jerome Robbins’s comic masterpiece, The Concert. Les Sylphides is the chief target, but the Trocks and Robbins not only got there first, they got there with wit and affection. It seems to me that an essential dislike or resentment of ballet is reflected in Bourne’s view of the ballet world, all Russianisms, rivalries, campy tantrums. And swishiness. Why would anyone die for that?

Torn between the lure of dancing and Lermontov’s power over her on the one hand and her love for her composer-husband Julian on the other, poor Vicky Page dances in the red shoes for one last time and dies the death, flinging herself in front of a train. But she’s back on stage for the most over-the-top curtain call I’ve ever seen—forget Callas, Nureyev, Merman: this is Dolly, back where she doesn’t belong. Poor Ashley Shaw, Bourne’s Vicky Page. She’s a pleasing dancer who even bears a faint facial resemblance to Shearer, but who lacks not only the famous flaming red hair but the flaming talent. No one else on stage has charisma, but then what they’ve been given to work with—generic dancing, confused story line, production values that pale into insignificance compared to those of the celebrated movie—would stifle genius. In short: Matthew Bourne has trashed an iconic Michael Powell movie to come up with something that isn’t even Baz Luhrmann.

Layla and Majnun. Susana Millman

As if to demonstrate the contrast between tremendous talent and tremendous lack of same, last week also brought us a remarkable new work by Mark Morris, a staging of a famous Azerbaijani opera called Layla and Majnun, one of the Middle East’s most famous and beloved tales—its equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. Yes, love between two young people is thwarted (though in Layla and Majnun it’s not consummated). Lives are blighted, death prevails. But that’s the end of the equivalency. This opera is not about plot specifics, it’s about the eternal verities.

A group of musicians, the estimable Silk Road Ensemble, are seated more or less downstage center—plucking, strumming, piping—as are the two leading singers: Alim Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova, who are astoundingly fluent in the traditional music the opera is based on. Fluent, and very beautiful. The story, such as it is, is danced by members of the Mark Morris dance company—the women in vermilion, the men in electric blue. The action takes place in four scenes in which the passion, despair, and tragedy of Layla’s and Majnun’s history are enacted, and in which four different couples dance the protagonists. The vocabulary is recognizably Morris, but strongly inflected with middle-eastern accents and gestures that wonderfully reflect the music. (Well, that’s what choreography is supposed to do.)

Mark Morris is a master of populating the stage, of composition. On the smallish area of the Rose Theater stage that already contains an elaborate construct for the singers and musicians, he deploys his dancers with such finesse and inevitability that you don’t register the difficulties. The story itself—abstract to begin with, sung in a language we don’t know, with surtitles so far above the stage that you almost break your neck trying to read them—doesn’t carry emotionally. But the music, the movement, the costumes, the power of Howard Hodgkin’s abstract painting dominating the stage picture, the depth of everyone’s devotion to the work, gather and gather, and leave the audience, or at least this member of it, completely satisfied.

Dying for Art in ‘The Red Shoes’; Dying for Love in ‘Layla and Majnun’