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Flash Review, 9-27: Shoes, don't fail me now
High-heeled talent for low-brow look at footwear

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2010 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "Shoes" tells the history of Western society's obsession with shoes. It is an extravagant, glossy production which brings together the most unlikely personalities of the contemporary dance and musical theater worlds, in the most atypical setting --- not the West End, London's home of musicals, but Sadler's Wells Theater, where I saw it September 7. Written and composed by Richard Thomas (of "Jerry Springer, the Opera" fame) with overall direction and choreography by Stephen Mear, it also contains input from guest choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Aletta Collins, Kate Prince and Mark Smith.

"Shoes" is a series of choreographed sketches, set to music and lyrics (delivered by full jazz orchestra and choir) which are frivolous and witty as well as being cheesy and cringe-inducing. Elaborate sets change with each scene, but the giant stiletto which dominates the stage is a permanent feature, just in case we forget what this show is about. 250 pairs of shoes grace the stage during the course of the evening, as the dancers cavort in crippling Christian Louboutins, saucy sophisticated Manolo Blahniks, cool Nike trainers, and 'must have' Jimmy Choos, just to mention a few. Some sport more esoteric footwear: flippers, ski-boots, and a curiously fetishistic blocked ballet shoe with stiletto heel attached. Those modeling these eccentric shoes appear in short solos, quirkily crossing the stage like characters in a Dr. Seuss book. Flip-flops are celebrated through a sketch in which perky pirouettes and mellow music conjure up warm and carefree summer days. Even the unsightly but comforting Ugg boots favored so much by dancers and teenagers turn up, as a flock of performers dressed in sheep costumes and these boots of Australian origin bleat around their shepherd, a bearded Jesus figure who in turn sports a pair of wholesome and worthy Birkenstocks. If you have any interest in shoes, such characterizations of what they symbolize ARE spot on.

Songs eulogize shoe designers, in amusing refrains which at times are so utterly banal that they make me realize why I don't see more musical theater. However, the performance skills of the cast are as sharp as some of the stiletto shoes they display. There is an attempt made by some of the guest choreographers to create something a little more profound: Cherkaoui's segment, "Old Shoes," traces the history of a pair of wedding shoes worn by four generations of brides, passed down through the family and bringing bad luck to each woman who gets married in them. He links together a series of tableaux in which wedding groups pose inside a giant picture frame, the shoes causing havoc and distress each time they are worn. The singer who recounts the story of the ill-fated shoes, herself about to marry and thus inherit them, finally destroys the decorative but wretched heirlooms by setting them alight. On the other hand, Cherkaoui's homage to Salvatore Ferragamo, the Italian shoemaker who started working in the 1930s and later became popular amongst stars such as Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Bridget Bardot, becomes a sublime folk dance in which the dancers perform intricate steps in their exquisite shoes, as if their feet are overjoyed at wearing such works of art.

Kate Prince's "Sneaker Addict 1, 2 and 3" is a touching tribute to the world of hip-hop, in which the 'trainer' shoe has gained the status of ultimate 'cool.' A woman on her travels across the stage finds boxes of sneakers scattered around and furtively opens them. As she tries on the contents, her eyes widen as each pair of Nikes looks more tempting than the last. Through a lyrical and soft display of break-dance set to a haunting piano solo, the dancer -- the sensational Teneisha Bonner, who shines through the whole show -- convinces us that each shoe makes her move with greater fluidity and virtuosity. She dances her way to 'sneaker enlightenment,' finally jumping to the top of a pile of Nike boxes and sitting in a lotus position, goddess of them all.

Aletta Collins's "Health and Safety" is an ironic reference to every public space operator's obsession with health and safety regulations. Performers dressed in hard hats and white coats sing through and demonstrate the safety precautions women should take when wearing a pair of exceedingly high heels for the first time. Much of the advice is entirely appropriate and dexterously conveyed, especially on how to learn to fall over gracefully, to be elegant when descending stairs and to practice walking in them before going out in public. Collins successfully unites the worlds of caution and decadence in this act.

After a while, however, the cliches, the in-house jokes, the Sex in the City quotations, and the assumption that all women are fanatical about shoes wear rather thin. Seductive ideas somehow get lost in the commercial, self-satisfied tone of the event, which begins to drag at two hours long. While on one level it makes me paranoid about my own shabby collection of shoes, on another it makes me think about all the other women in the world, in developing countries, in poverty, for whom even a pair of flip-flops might be too expensive. This is a show for our affluent, consumer society, for those who have the wealth and time to indulge in fetish and fantasy, and the best way to experience it is on a purely superficial level. leaving your social conscience and critical baggage at home.

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