The Australian ballerina talks about taking on an iconic role for Matthew Bourne’s new production
Ashley Shaw was 15 when she left Australia, her parents and five siblings to move to the other side of the world to study ballet in England. Was it difficult? “It was in some ways, and my parents were sad to see me go, but I look back at such a big move, such a big decision, and see that at the time I was just so excited and wrapped up in the dance world,” she says. “I wanted to be a dancer more than anything.”
Ambition is in Shaw’s DNA and it’s also the prime ingredient in the life of Victoria Page, the fictional ballerina portrayed in the iconic Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes. Forced to choose between the man she desires and the career she craves, Vicky sees no alternative but to throw herself in front of a speeding train. That’s the story — surreal, melodramatic and vividly dressed in Technicolor on screen — that Shaw will be telling when she stars as Vicky in Matthew Bourne’s new dance version of The Red Shoes, which opens in Plymouth on November 21.
The film’s patriarchal 1940s attitudes may seem old-fashioned to us now and its life or death struggle between the personal and the professional may seem extreme in an age when ballerinas routinely have families, but Bourne sees realistic parallels to the art form of the 21st century. “Today’s dancers do have the same drives, the same ambitions as Vicky,” the choreographer says. “They may have unions now and be looked after a bit better than they were, but they still put a lot of pressure on themselves because everyone wants to be the star, everyone wants to be the best they can be.”
When it came to mounting his new version of The Red Shoes, Bourne chose as his star someone who is the perfect embodiment of artistic aspiration. “Ashley Shaw as a performer is very single-minded in the same way Vicky is,” he says. “Ashley is also a beautiful dancer, but more than that she lights up the auditorium. There is something very special and natural about her that audiences fall in love with and that’s important for the story. They need to see Vicky’s passion for dance and understand it.”
To understand Shaw’s passion for dance I venture to Purfleet in Essex, to the High House Production Park, where Bourne’s New Adventures company is in final rehearsals for The Red Shoes. Here I meet his leading lady. Like Moira Shearer in the film, Shaw is incredibly pretty. With her flawless make-up and cascading hair, this demure 27-year-old looks surprisingly chilled and elegant for someone in the pressure cooker of fronting a big show.
Shaw studied classical ballet at the Elmhurst School in Birmingham and dreamt of being in a ballet company. “But when I was 17 I saw a performance of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man and it blew me away,” she says. “It changed my path. From then on my dream was to be in his company.” Yet her career took an unexpected detour. “I auditioned for New Adventures after school and didn’t get in,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went off for a year dancing on a cruise ship — musical theatre, ballroom. It was an incredible experience, an amazing first job and completely different from what I trained in as a ballerina. It helped me to develop as a performer, especially doing eight shows a week, and Matt’s work is very much about performance and acting. So I auditioned again and got in.”
Since joining Bourne’s company seven years ago, Shaw has been his leading lady on numerous occasions, dancing the barefoot Aurora in his vampire-inspired Sleeping Beauty, the glamorous heroine of his Second World War Cinderella and the earthy seductress Lana in The Car Man. However, this is the first time that Bourne has created a role specially for Shaw, utilising her distinctive blend of dramatic likeability and wondrous free spirit on stage.
He’s also taking advantage of her classical roots in this, his first serious effort at incorporating pointe work into his choreography (he used it briefly in his Swan Lake 20 years ago, but blink and you would miss it). “The red shoes are pointe shoes and pretty much all the girls dance on pointe because there are different ballets featured within the story,” Shaw says. “Matt has picked casts who have a classical training background and our company classes recently have been more balletic. I’ve been working on pointe for the past year to get the strength back and I feel quite confident now.”
Just as in the film, Bourne’s production features a ballet within a ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale in which a girl is forced to dance by a pair of rather sinister red shoes. “Having a story where you can’t stop dancing makes for a very hard role,” Shaw says. “The shoes don’t ever stop.”
To get them in the mood for his new production, Bourne took his company to see a screening of The Red Shoes at the BFI. “Moira Shearer is definitely a huge inspiration to me, I watched her in everything she’s done, not just The Red Shoes,” Shaw says. “The way she embodies Vicky Page is so brilliant. I aspire to that, but with my own interpretation.”
Because the production is set in a British dance company in the late 1940s (think Sadler’s Wells Ballet), another English ballerina springs to mind — Margot Fonteyn. Shaw says Fonteyn, who had a difficult relationship with her Panamanian husband, Roberto Arias, was also a significant influence in her preparation for Vicky. “Fonteyn was a big part of my research; even the struggles in her personal life parallel a bit the story of The Red Shoes.
“In those days ballerinas had to give themselves completely to their careers. It’s different today, they don’t have to choose so totally between their personal and professional lives. Though there is still definitely a sacrifice to make and a lot of that is in your time. In our company, because we tour a lot — up to eight months a year — and a lot of people are married, sometimes their partners desperately want them to stop touring so they can stay at home.”
Luckily for Shaw, her partner, Adam Maskell, is a former dancer with New Adventures and so understands her life on the road. “I’m very happy in both areas of my life,” she says. Which makes it hard for Shaw — and perhaps today’s audiences — to identify with the film’s overblown narrative. “For me the ending comes out of nowhere,” Shaw says. “Vicky has one dilemma and she kills herself — how dramatic is that? So in Matt’s production we are playing up the idea that she is a bit unhinged, a bit crazy, right from the start. You see the cracks appearing in her mind, which drive us to this tragic ending. It’s more in her head than actually real.”
Doesn’t that sound like Natalie Portman’s bonkers ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan? “That was one of our research films,” Shaw says. “I enjoyed Black Swan and although it’s nothing like a dancer’s life it’s good for portraying how pressure and paranoia can make you go crazy.”
Shaw has been preparing for Vicky (a role which she shares with Cordelia Braithwaite) for two years. “Matt is very good at coaching us and giving us the tools we need to create our characters. He is also very collaborative with the choreography, so quite often in the studio we offer him something and he picks what he likes. So there’s a lot of me in Vicky Page.”
It’s a role she will have time to perfect. Unlike the Royal Ballet, for instance, which functions in a repertoire system so dancers share and alternate roles all the time, New Adventures works to a West End schedule, with eight — sometimes nine — shows a week of the same production. “From the first show to the 300th your character is in a completely different place because the show is constantly living and breathing, and it will change,” says Shaw, who is likely to dance Vicky five or six times a week for months. “Happily I never tire of a role.” After the two-month run at Sadler’s Wells in London ends on January 29, The Red Shoes will tour the UK and international dates are certain to follow.
The score for Bourne’s show is an amalgam of film music (from Citizen Kane and Fahrenheit 451) written by the great Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann and arranged by Terry Davies. “It is surprisingly danceable music and there are some really beautiful pieces,” Shaw says. “It’s quite amazing how the score fits the dance.”
Lez Brotherston, Bourne’s regular designer, has produced a set that suggests the grandeur of an opera house, while the period costumes provide plenty to tease the eye. “The costumes are lovely,” Shaw says. “It feels as if I have hundreds of them. Half the show is going to be me changing costume. I will have to become a master of the quick change in the wings. Lucky for me I love dressing up, so I’m in the right job.”
The Red Shoesis at Theatre Royal, Plymouth, November 21-26; The Lowry, Salford, November 29 to December 3; Sadler’s Wells, London EC1, December 6 to January 29, then touring (new-adventures.net)