Most people know this story through the rather lurid technicolour-drenched print of a strangulatedly-emotional postwar British film about a bothered ballerina. The red shoes themselves are the very symbol of puritan condemnation – the vanity of vanities.
Yet by the magic of theatre, here they become the symbol of the tortured artist, a metaphor for the defensive archness of a marginalised craft that to the man in the street may appear frivolously camp.
Matthew Bourne here celebrates the early days of British Ballet when its stars holidayed in the undiscovered fishing villages of the south of France. Here the gay but steely coterie who were those first home-grown exponents of the pure tradition could let their hair down well away from critical eyes.
And yet those fey founders of this great ballet legacy escaped wearing the clothes they stood up in from the German invasion of Holland, in the hold of the last cattle boat allowed out. Without these tough aesthetes there would be no British ballet at all.
So the allure of this new incarnation of The Red Shoes is that it’s a poignant story about the world of dance itself, with many scenes (even more it seems than in its first incarnation) set backstage. Again and again we see the world of dancers as they see us – from a lighted pavilion into the darkness of the pit, perhaps of the subconscious, or of the heart. And it seems possible that here Britain’s most celebrated choreographer is speaking truly from his own heart here, and with his usual opulent precision has condensed his feelings after a lifetime in dance into this production of The Red Shoes.
Here we see the pains, the pleasures, the perils, the pinnacles and the very pit of despair its heroine tries to make a life for love outside the dance, a life unthinkable to any addict who can’t imagine existing without the ballet.
I notice there’ve been some astute changes since I saw it earlier in the year. “I have tweaked it a fair bit,” the choreographer admits with his usual understatement.
The result is a masterpiece of British aesthetics and British talent. Bravo Sir Matthew.
Catch it if you can.
The show runs at the Hippodrome until Saturday (July 22). For tickets phone the box office on 0844 338 5000.