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all photos: Jeff Martin, review by Svetlana Legetic

There are two ways to talk about Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, which swept into Kennedy Center this week, in a swirl of tulle, blood, sequins and tears, only to run away to Broadway after this Sunday’s performance. The first way would obviously be to compare it to the original material, the seminal 1948 Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger collaboration of the same name, starring the unforgettable Moira Shearar as the budding ballerina Victoria Page. This film, by all accounts, is one of the ultimate pieces of art about art. It is gorgeous and messy, exhilarating but dangerous, and covers such art life themes as discipline and camaraderie (and yes, madness) with equal panache moving from fairy tale to surrealism to brutal realism to, well, horror as swiftly and elegantly as a dancer would. The beginning makes you fall in love, the middle makes you gasp, the ending still shocks. It is impossible to compare that film to anything. Even to its direct stage adaptation, nearly 70 years later. If you haven’t seen it – see it.

The other way is to, obviously, take the ballet at face value as a stand alone piece of art. Which is gorgeous and cinematic and sweeping and often quite funny and, essentially, a musical masquerading as a ballet.

Bourne, the Pied Piper of modern classical dance, is one of BYT’s theatre world favorites, ever since we laid our eyes on his blood sucking Sleeping Beauty at Kennedy Center some years back. He is, in many ways, what ballet as an art, needs to survive the generational fan transition, without necessarily compromising the art’s core values.

The Red Shoes is his 11th full length production and looking back through the list, it is obvious Bourne is attracted to a certain darker kind of mythological story: Edward Scissorhands, Lord of The Flies, Dorian Gray. These stories, much like The Red Shoes, have the ugliness of human weakness as their main villain. Same can be said for the original eponymous Hans Christian Andersen story, from which the ballet within the ballet is adapted – a young girl finds a pair of enchanted red shoes (their color signifying everything from artificial beauty to menstruation and maturity) and they compel her to never stop dancing. Till death.

It is a powerful image, and it deserves a powerful treatment and while Powell and Pressburger took it to the next, possibly unreachable level in 1948, Bourne does a fine job with strong casting and placing it into a stark, monochromatic set, reminiscent of a set designers fever dream.

Still, the show feels alivest when not dealing in high drama: the ballet company scenes, from rehearsal to beach parties are a true treat, and the New Adventures cast does a remarkable job acting, not just dancing. This is a world Bourne knows well, having been on the road for 30 years himself, and it shows.

It is in the moments when that the production is supposed to reach the thriller level highs that it has the occasional misstep. As the relationship between Victoria Page, the dance, and her domineering director Lermontov, reaches its climax, it seems the dance itself could use a word or two or a song or two, just to drive the nuances of character points home for the recorded score, which is intentionally cinematic and compiled from works by Bernard Hermann, a long term Hitchcock collaborator.

Still, in a Fall of one of the toughest, most sanity challenging years D.C. has ever had – it is great to be reminded that art is a true escape from reality and that we, as a collective audience, should do a standing ovation for what Bourne has set out to do.

The Red Shoes is playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. Tickets are $29-$129 and available via 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.

Take a peak behind the scenes below: