By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 20, 2017 at 03:36 PM EDT
Credit: John Persson

Everything was beautiful at the ballet — in the 1975 musical A Chorus Line, three dancers sing these words and recount how seeing The Red Shoes inspired them to pursue careers as performers. Though the women are talking about the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film that inspired the ballet now making its American premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, Matthew Bourne’s stage adaptation of The Red Shoes could just as easily inspire these lyrics.

The show, based on the 1948 film, which was itself based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, is a lush feast for the eyes centered on its titular blood-red shoes. Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw), a rising ballerina, finds herself increasingly unable to distinguish between the fairy-tale metaphor of the red shoes and her own personal dreams. Should she choose romantic love or will her passion for her career consume her until it demands the ultimate sacrifice?

A Bernard Herrmann score, cobbled together from the film composer’s concert pieces and suites, drives the action. None of his most famous pieces (the shower scene in Psycho, the love theme from Vertigo) are featured, but his musical signature is still recognizable, thereby allowing the themes of those films to inject a pervading sense of mystery and doom by proxy.

Since his groundbreaking 1995 production of Swan Lake, Matthew Bourne has found mainstream success unparalleled for the director of a ballet company. Known for his emphasis on storytelling alongside precision choreography with a blend of more contemporary styles, he has revolutionized the form, earning his ballet productions slots in theaters more commonly populated by musical comedies and crowd-pleasing dramas. The Red Shoes is his latest worthy entry. Whether or not you’ve seen a Bourne work before, you feel his reputation is well earned.

The dancing is exquisite, of course. The New Adventures company of dancers posses a potent combination of strength, grace, and acting ability. They have flawless bodylines in every movement, making even walking seem like an effortless elegant pursuit. But they also imbue their performances with heartfelt believability, a trait sometimes lacking in more traditional dance performances. Michaela Meazza and Liam Mower are both commanding and subtly hilarious as Irina and Ivan, the resident prima ballerina/o of the Ballet Lermentov. Shaw is stunning as Victoria, the rising star who is torn between her passion for her art and her love for composer Julian Craster (Dominic North). Though her dancing is breathtaking from start to finish, it’s her ability to chart Victoria’s emotional journey that makes her unforgettable in the role. She flits from hopefulness to triumph to lovesickness to cynicism to maddened frenzy with a deft hand. North and Sam Archer provide firm and tempting foils as opposing sides of Victoria’s love triangle.

All of this is tied together with the production’s seamless use of its design elements. Sumptuous designs by Lez Brotherston (set and costumes), Paule Constable (lighting), and Paul Groothuis (sound) work in tandem with the sweeping score and compelling choreography to paint a stage picture worthy of a baroque painting. No one element overwhelms the other, instead wholly depending on each other to tell a wordless story. Groothius’ sound design builds in intensity at crucial moments, filling both audience and characters with a sense of dread. Brotherston’s set design almost seems another member of the company itself — the centerpiece of a red velvet curtain sweeping and swaying across the stage as if it was just another one of the dancers. All of this is tied together by Constable’s high contrast dramatic lighting style.

The Red Shoes asks us to consider whether dogged pursuit of a craft, particularly an artistic one, can co-exist alongside romantic love. What sacrifices are we willing to make on the road to artistic and personal fulfillment? And what is the risk of being so consumed by your ambitions that you can’t stop until you die? Is that conclusion tragedy or triumph? The beauty of this production washes over you and envelopes you in such a way that you can understand why, like for the ladies in A Chorus Line, the takeaway might be that every sacrifice is worth it. Particularly, in a place, like the ballet, where everything is beautiful. A-

Note: Many of the roles are double or triple cast. This review speaks to the cast performing on Sept. 19, 2017.