The Red Shoes is Natalie Weir’s new work for Expressions Dance Company.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story and the 1948 film of the same name, it too is about a woman obsessed with dance to the point of self-destruction.
Ruth Ridgway chatted with Natalie Weir, Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company.
What was it about the Hans Christian Andersen story and the 1948 movie of The Red Shoes that appealed to you and inspired your work of the same name?
I saw the film on television some time ago and thought it was beautiful, and possibly something a dance company could do. I loved the era it was set in, and the story within a story idea.
It is also very appealing to find strong, complex and interesting female characters to base work on.
In order to grow our audience, we are at times using well-known titles to help make the company more accessible, and to perhaps attract people to see us that might not normally come. And I do love to tell a good story – with darkness and light!
It also seemed relevant to create a work about dance – as this is what we do every day – and the pursuit of perfection. This is not only in classical ballet, but also contemporary dance – the dancers do this constantly. But of course perfection means different things to different people.
How have you developed the work? Did you have a particular focus to start with? Did this change, and if so, how?
I started discussions with designer Bruce McKinven, to see if he found the idea inspiring. We talked a lot about the idea of obsession, or addiction, and how that can start very small and focused, but end up overtaking one’s whole life.
Bruce followed the story within a story idea by creating onstage a world within a world. We have not really deviated from this – just developed it.
The dancers of course play a major part in the creation of the work, the development of the movement and the characters. This work really belongs to them.
How do you feel about the cruelty and sadism of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and is that reflected in the work?
It’s like many of the fairy tales – those of the Grimm Brothers for example – the heart of the story is often dark and gruesome. In Red Shoes the girl’s feet are chopped off – yet they keep on dancing without her! Not so nice. However the idea of something taking over someone’s life – like a drug, where they are unable to stop it, seemed like strong fodder.
In my Red Shoes, the dancer Victoria becomes obsessed with the person in the mirror – but not in a good way. She is performing in a pantomime of The Red Shoes – which I have approached quite stylistically, with a dark angel cursing her to dance to death, and redemption/love/spirituality found through the weeping angel. This pantomime has her personal story around it (the story of the real Victoria) – her memories of auditioning for a dance company, her struggle with the form, her search for perfection, as well as the amazing highs that being on stage and the accolades bring.
The film of The Red Shoes shows another way in which a woman is destroyed, not so much by her obsession with dance, but by her temerity in wanting to have a career. Is this battle to develop a career reflected in your work? Or is the struggle different, and in what way?
Yes, it’s the struggle I guess to maintain a real life – seen through the relationship with Victoria’s lover/soulmate – balanced precariously with her onstage desires and dreams. We see her begin to slip into a madness of sorts, and the lover is left with a shell of a woman whose spirit has been captured by a world of fantasy.
The struggle could be brought into a modern context – the difficulty of finding a life/work balance, and I think this is relevant when working in an artform that is about passion, dedication and drive. Rarely do artists of any genre leave their work at work; it does pervade their private lives and often defines who they are. But when is this too much? And what happens when it ends?
What do the red shoes symbolise for you?
They are the intangible spirit that drives a dancer to be all they can be – the love of an artform.
What do the story and the film say to you about dance as a pursuit? How is this different in your work?
I think most people would recognise that dance is an artform of incredible highs and fulfilment, especially for those who make it to the top in their field – perfection can almost be found (but not quite). However, there is a downside, and perhaps for those not finding that dream, it can be heartbreaking. But the satisfaction for those who persevere and get there – that might be hard to match in other areas of their lives.
Can you tell us a little about the music for The Red Shoes, which will be performed live by the Southern Cross Soloists?
The music is by an eclectic mix of composers. Tania Frazer (Creative Director of Southern Cross Soloists) has been sending me music over a period of 12 months. We wanted it to sound as if it belonged in the 1940s, and had beauty and timelessness. We have music by Rachmaninov and Bach, as well as living composers such as Matthew Hindson, Pēteris Vasks and Giovanni Allevi.
The Southern Cross Soloists are all incredible musicians, all really at the top of their game, and it is a pleasure to have the luxury of the music being played live.
You are also incorporating film by Sue Healey. How is the film being used?
Film is not an area I have worked in before, but this work seemed to ask for it. The film is used three times only: the first two times to magnify the state of mind of Victoria, and the third in the onstage pantomime, to provide a really different look onstage and give the sense of the dancer travelling. Victoria dances through night and day, and different landscapes – and the film underpins the emotion and physicality of the dance to the death. Sue Healey is a sensitive and experienced filmmaker, and this work seemed like a great place to collaborate with such a film artist for the first time.
Finally, what do you hope the audience will feel in response to your work The Red Shoes?
It is always hard to predict how audiences will react to a new work, but I hope they feel engaged by the story, stunned by the gorgeous design, moved by the haunting beauty of the music, and inspired by the beautiful physicality and artistry of the dancers.
Every one of the dancers has a moment to shine, and I do believe they shine through.
The Red Shoes runs from July 18 – 26 2014 at QPAC. Book online.