Principal ballet dancer Ashley Shaw returns this year to the role of Vickie Page in Matthew Bourne’s production of The Red Shoes. We spoke to Ashley to discuss the show and the ways which it has changed since its original premier in 2016, touching on the role itself (which Ashley created), and her journey towards where she is now.
Did you always know you wanted to go into dancing?
I started when I was three. My mum put me into dancing and very quickly, even from such a young age, I became very serious about it and fell in love with it. There were some lovely teachers I had when I was younger who really pushed me and took me to new schools and different experiences. Then when I was 15, I moved over here to England and attended Elmhurst School which is with Birmingham Royal Ballet school – so I made the decision to be a dancer quite early.
Was your training quite traditional or more unconventional that you expected?
I found it very traditional, even more so than what I’d done previously in Australia. It was much more classical ballet-based, so I did miss a bit more of the contemporary, jazz, musical theatre, singing, acting – that kind of thing, which is what drew me to Matthew Bourne’s company. It was there that I first saw Matthew’s company. They were doing a production of Carmen in Birmingham and I thought it was such a wonderful collaboration of all the different training I’ve done because his work incorporates all the different styles. I guess I’m really lucky that I saw his productions when I did, and that I auditioned, and they took me. It was ‘meant to be’ a little bit.
What do you think makes Matthew Bourne’s production stand out from others that you’ve seen?
There’s such a great emphasis on storytelling and the stories are so clear. He employs dancers of all different ages, body types and dance styles so he creates a very well-rounded story because not everyone’s the same in real life. He’s just such a great storyteller and the audience really respond to that.
Because the production of The Red Shoes has quite a rich and complex storyline, do you find that you have to become more of an actor than a dancer?
It’s definitely a lot of both. Obviously in The Red Shoes, the whole story is that they never stop dancing so that’s quite full on, but yes, it’s a hard story to tell. There are so many different elements – you definitely have to be a strong actress to be in this production, that’s the heart and soul of the piece for sure.
Do you think you’d get along with your character if you met her?
I’ve got a lot of similarities to Vickie. I’m a dancer who’s playing another dancer, I think this is the first time I’ve ever done that, so automatically you relate to her struggles and ambitions. She wants to be a famous ballerina; she wants the lead roles and we’ve all felt that in our careers and in growing up. Then there’s her struggle between falling in love and having to make sacrifices for the love of dance and again, we all experience those things. I’ve moved across the other side of the world to pursue my ambitions so you can use all that to understand what she’s going through as well. It’s nice to play a character that you relate to. You can really embody that and let yourself fall into the character.
How do you usually prepare for a role?
Matt is huge on research, so we usually start from the film and then other films of that time. We’ve watched lots of 1940s ballet and how they move because it’s so different to ballet now. You always start from research and then do a lot of workshops, and as the choreography develops, we try to layer that with character. This character is a creation, which is always an interesting and amazing thing to do. You start from nothing and can really get a lot of input. It’s a really collaborative experience working with Matt, which is lovely. He’s really generous in allowing us to give our own opinions.
How do you think the show has developed since it was last on stage in 2016?
With time, things always get better and clearer. There are quite a few people who have come back to this show who did it last time, and then with Matt revisiting as well, you see it with fresh eyes. I think it’s definitely better this time round. Returning to the role, you come back with much more knowledge and much more experience, I’ve played her 200 times before so I’ve come back a bit more confident than I did last time. You just keep it growing and developing so it never gets stale and your character never gets one-dimensional.
Because of how successful the show was last time, is there quite a lot of pressure to match it?
We got such wonderful responses last time and a lot of people are coming back to see it again, so we want to keep their memories as good as they were. There’s a lot of new people coming too who missed it last time and have heard amazing things, so there is definitely a level to maintain and that puts a lot of pressure on. I feel like we’ve all come back stronger and wiser, and we know these characters so hopefully we are just delivering better shows each time.
Is there a lot of adaptation involved or do you try and keep it deep-rooted in the film?
There are a few differences and obviously having to tell the story without words requires quite a lot of adaptation to get the story across. Matt always recommends that audiences watch the film before they come. You don’t need to but it’s not something that will spoil it, it actually really helps. We’re very much paired with the film.
How is this performance different to what you’d previously been in?
What’s really wonderful about Matthew’s shows, is that they are all so varied, so as a performer it keeps it very interesting. We aren’t just doing the same thing year in year out. This is definitely one of the hardest shows I’ve done, but it’s also a really lovely one to do.
Why would you say it’s the hardest?
Both physically and emotionally. As Vickie you’re never off stage and if you are, you’re doing lots of quick changes so it’s really hard. I’ve got four or five water bottles dotted around the stage because of how physically exhausting it is. Emotionally it’s also such a big role, so to put yourself through that about six times a week is really tough. It’s nice to be back at this point in my career though, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again.
Do you have a favourite role that you’ve played in different productions?
Aside from Vickie, which is definitely my favourite, I loved playing Kim in Edward Scissorhands, which is vastly different – but that’s what’s so wonderful. There are definitely other roles I’d love to play, but I love being part of a creation – I think that’s a really special experience – so I just hope Matt has something up his sleeve that I don’t even know about yet.
What do you spend your off-stage moments doing?
Because we don’t get a lot of time off, when we do, it tends to be spent very chilled. I like staying at home with my little puppy, watching TV and going to the cinema. I love going to the theatre as well and seeing shows, I think that’s really important to keep doing. When you’re on stage it’s really good to go back and be the audience member, to remember what’s happening out there. That can be quite hard though when you’re performing six days a week.
Do you have a favourite thing to watch at the theatre?
I love An American In Paris, that’s one of my favourites in the whole world. I’m actually a big musical theatre fan so I love going to musicals. I love Waitress and Les Misérables. My fiancé is an agent so I’m quite lucky in that he gets tickets to everything, so I quite often go along.
Who has been your biggest inspiration in what you do?
I suppose I’ve had many inspirations. I loved the Royal Ballet when I was at school and all the ballerinas there. I just really wanted to be doing what they were doing. Every time I go to the theatre I’m inspired, even now. That would be my advice for anyone, to just go and see as many things as you can because you never know how you’re going to walk away feeling.