Expressions Dance Company: The Red Shoes -
Playhouse, QPAC, 18 July -
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes is a morality tale of temptation and redemption, while the iconic 1948 film of the same name uses his fairy tale as a metaphor for obsession over art as vocation and as the purpose of life itself. This obsession is also the focus of Natalie Weir’s production of The Red Shoes for Expressions Dance Company (EDC), thematically drawing much from the film, (including its ‘play within a play’ construct), where the lead character Victoria cannot choose between her love of dance and her love for her partner.
As Victoria, Elise May had the maturity to give a depth to her portrayal of the tortured dancer, as well as the requisitely beautiful feet and legs to show off those red shoes in sometimes fast, intricate footwork. Jack Ziesing gave a sensitive portrayal as her Lover and was plasticine pliant; his first love duet with May a sinuous melange of controlled, entwining lifts.
Visually the work is compelling. Bruce McKinven’s set design, enhanced by the lighting of Matt Scott, cleverly evokes the backstage/front of stage, theatre within a theatre dichotomy; the central set piece, an angled ‘bed’ of mirrors surrounded by heavy red curtains, fragmenting to either side of the open stage. Sue Healey’s vivid filmic projections also add complexity, particularly the close up images of May’s face juxtaposed against her actual reflected image in the mirrored set.
As with all EDC’s main stage collaborations, live music enriches the performance. Here the Southern Cross Soloists, mainly positioned up stage centre behind a row of ‘footlights’ as if in the ‘pit’, played the score, which comprises fragments from 11 different classical works chosen, according to Weir’s brief, for their haunting beauty. It provides a sublime accompaniment to the movement, although a section of Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel, heard now in so many other dance contexts, is, for me, a little too cloyingly familiar.
While the composition of the work is essentially a series of solos and duets, all showing Weir’s consummate skill in manipulating bodies – creating beautiful form and fluid movement – much of it seems very much on the same ‘note’, almost for its sake. Characters become then rather one dimensional, showing little of the emotional nuance one usually expects of Weir. Each solo or duet is also seemingly disconnected from what came before or after. Therefore the narrative, as well as individual characterisations, sometimes lacks clarity of dramatic development.
Nevertheless new EDC member Rebecca Hall gave a technically precise performance as the young Victoria, along with guest artist Natalie Allen as Victoria’s mirror image (allowing dramatic license for different hair colouring) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) student Cloudia Elder, who showed much promise as a lively Spirit of the Red Shoes. Likewise, Daryl Brandwood made an authoritative Director, a ‘puppet master’ in duets with the two Victorias, however his unbending, almost robotic solo similarly revealed little other dramatic insight.
Other elements, like the use of nine QUT students, as Auditionees and Possessed Red Shoes, while performed with technical acumen, were an unnecessary distraction and added little. (A partnership with QUT Creative Industries encourages student engagement in EDC performances, but when students outnumber professional dancers on stage one notices the imbalance.) Stiffly abstracted references to the ballet technique (perhaps in a nod to the film), such as courus en pointe, are also a discordant note.
There is much to like in The Red Shoes, a story about obsession that resonates with all dancers, but a more dispassionate reappraisal would help bring clarity to its dramatic construct, thereby fully revealing the motivating passion in the work that also obviously helped fuel its conception.
– DENISE RICHARDSON