Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Flames of Paris - Soviet dram-ballet made likable?

For Western dance critics, no genre of ballet received as much scorn as the Soviet dram-ballets. The Flames of Paris, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, The Red Poppy, Spartacus, The Stone Flower, are some of the more well-known examples of this genre. These ballets, always with a heavy-handed socialist theme, were beloved by Communist heads (including Joseph Stalin), but thought to contain little of interest either choreographically or musically (Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella were exceptions). Their case is not helped by the surviving films from that era -- as always, some of the finest dancers of that era are made to look cartoonish, even ridiculous, marching, stomping, leering, and fist-shaking as Good Peasants and Evil Aristocrats in severely abridged films. For the dram-ballets the dancers also seemed to adopt a deliberately careless attitude towards basic classical positions. Lack of turnout, a certain vulgarity of posture (the women were often hunched over, fists balled in rage), that they would never dream of adopting in, say, Swan Lake, they seemed to adopt as a matter of course in dram-ballets. To give you an idea of what it was like, here's an excerpt from the pas de deux of Flames of Paris, with the legendary Vakhtang Chabukiani:

Imagine my surprise when I popped in my latest acquisition, a 2010 performance of The Flames of Paris from the Bolshoi Ballet, and found myself delighted and entertained by not only the spectacle, but, yes, the music and the dancing. Granted, the ballet had some new choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, but the extant Vassily Vainonen choreography was left intact, as was Boris Asafiev's score. Was I wrong about dram-ballet?

The first surprise was Boris Asafiev's score. I expected bombastic movie-music in the Spartacus vein. But Asafiev actually pieced together melodies from the era of the French Revolution, so the score sounds almost baroque in flavor. The second surprise was the ballet itself. I expected a long series of stomping peasants and evil aristocrats, but the piece (at least the revival by Ratmansky) is more subtle and charming. There is a long set-piece at Versailles. I expected to see Evil Aristocrats Behaving Badly, but instead there was a rather old-fashioned procession and then a long "ballet within a ballet" -- "Rinaldo and Armida," performed to mostly baroque melodies. Ballet of course started in the French courts, but it was a pleasant surprise and delight to see a mini-recreation of the kind of myth-based ballet spectacles that were so popular with Louis XIV. This was apparently in the Vainonen original. The dancers for Rinaldo and Armida were Anna Antonicheva and Ruslan Skvortsov, and they were absolutely wonderful. Subtle, charming, an example of the depth of the Bolshoi roster currently.

There was a great amount of character dancing in The Flames of Paris (all of the first scene of Act Two), and that is the only part of the video where I felt the old abridged films, for all their cartoonish implausibility, captured better than the new generation of Bolshoi dancers. Take a comparison at the famous basque dance, and how in the older film, the woman who dances this really looks like a folk dancer, with her larger-than-life movements and the conviction with which she articulates the steps. In contrast, Natalia Osipova looks like a highly-trained classical ballerina gingerly stomping her feet. I feel this is Alexei Ratmansky's only major misstep: his decision to have the Basque Dance danced by the principal dancers, not the character dancers of the company.

In other areas Ratmansky has dusted off the cobwebs and made dram-ballet entertaining and interesting not just as a historical relic but as a full-length evening of classical ballet. Ratmansky from what I understand created a more romantic storyline for the leads: the main story now centers around the peasants Jerome (Denis Savin), his sister Jeanne (Natalia Osipova), the revolutionary Phillippe (Ivan Vasiliev), and the French aristocrat Adeline (Nina Kaptsova). Whereas in the old ballet the French Revolution was the story, in the new ballet the French Revolution serves as a backdrop for these couples. These additions to the ballet give it a more modern appeal. Predictably Jeanne and Philippe fall in love, as do Adeline and Jerome. But Ratmansky in reviving this dram-ballet has added an individual, human touch to the characters. Adeline makes the French aristocrats less Evil, and the final scene, with Adeline being led to the guillotine, is meant to evoke sympathy for the victims of the Reign of Terror. It's a nuance I doubt Stalin would have appreciated. Nina Kaptsova is one of the loveliest, most lyrical dancers the Bolshoi currently has, and I'm so glad she's being represented on video (she was also the Phrygia in the Spartacus dvd), although Adeline isn't a big role. The brief love duet between Jerome and Adeline is one of the sweetest moments of the video. As the Revolutionaries Vasiliev as a dancer is naturally more "dramatic" than Osipova (his latest hit role is Spartacus), and he's more of a natural at the kind of wide-eyed revolutionary characterization than Osipova, who is naturally bubbly and sweet and seems awkward in the final tableau, where she's made to do some old-fashioned stomping and flag-waving.

Osipova and Vasiliev are by now in demand by ballet companies all over the world, a famous partnership. Both of them manage to be entertaining in the old-school Bolshoi way without sacrificing a cleanness of technique that the Bolshoi now embraces. Jeanne as a pure-dance role has less opportunities than, say, Kitri or Giselle, to show off Osipova's uniquely dynamic style, along with her almost superhuman elevation. On the other hand it's good to see Osipova and Vasiliev in such a "folksy" role. In the first scene of Act 2, in fact, all the dancers are in character shoes. If they can't quite get the folk dancing right, they do manage to make the dram-ballet hip, fun, aesthetically pleasing.  In the pas de deux Osipova and Vasiliev get to show off their astounding classical ballet technical capabilities. Vasiliev's barrel turns in the pas de deux predictably bring down the house, as do Ospipova's fouettes, which she alternates doubles and triples with little tours en l'air, a feat I've never seen before. Here is the famous pas de deux:

After watching this video, I was full of questions about my attitudes towards dram-ballet. Even with Alexei Ratmansky's modern touches, The Flames of Paris is recognizably a dram-ballet, in terms of overall theme and presentation. It was also entertaining, rousing, just flat-out fun, and had none of the hokey feel of Stars of the Russian Ballet and other abridged Soviet ballet films. I suspect that the abridged films probably made the ballets more cartoonish than they really were as theater experiences. I pulled out Edwin Denby's review of Stars of the Russian Ballet, which has a severely abridged version of Flames of Paris. This is what he had to say:
According to this film the Soviet choreographers are ineffectual and meager, the dancers are inelegant .... The film showed Soviet ballet attempting serious feelings without elegance, and wasting the power of its dancers. The theater excitement they created was what we call corny. But film all over the world is poor at catching the beauty and very good at catching the silliness of any ballet. Film is like a scatterbrain with a beady swivel eye. Its field of vision is totally unlike that of a theater seat ... In The Flames of Paris the great Chabuoukiani appeared, whirling with a grandiosely volcanic temperament, an extraordinary whipping brilliance; but the miserable staging and direction of this ballet wasted the impact he made and blurred several other attractive moments. 
The mime of everyone in the film was completely sincere, and several of the male stars had flashes of grandeur. But as movement a great many of the gestures were foolish, confused, and poorly timed. Some of the chorus mime consisted of taking a very deep breath and coming up with a distorted face or a wildly flung arm. The general effect was what we called chewing the scenery. The part of acting that an actor feels seemed highly trained in these dancers; the part an audience sees, neglected.
Denby wrote at a time when most "ballet films" were shot in small, cramped sound-stages and severely abridged to fit whatever allotted "running time" they had been given. The soundtrack was often poorly synched with the movements. Nevertheless his comments on Stars of the Russian Ballet are so insightful that I quoted him at length, because I suspect the silliness of the dram-ballets on film was a combination of the filming conditions (the severe abridgment, cartoon sets, and cheesy "special effects") and the way dram-ballet was danced by the dancers at the time. I could be wrong but when I watch those films I feel as if the dancers perhaps didn't feel as if these ballets were "real ballets" in terms of the way they presented themselves. Denby pointed out that even with the elegant Galina Ulanova "the shape of her gestures was often poorly invented and overcomplicated, and she delivered many of them in a half-crouch that made the feeling look ungenerous." This lack of presentation went as far as the women not bothering to lift their free leg to the proper height en passe. They often instead just let the free leg dangle as they tried to churn out pirouettes or fouettes with the maximum speed. The mugging, hammimg, poor posture, lack of turnout, are not present in the vintage films of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake excerpts, but seen to a discouraging amount in the vintage dram-ballet clips.

The new generation of Bolshoi dancers however presented The Flames of Paris as a serious classical ballet. The character dancing suffers some as a result, but the overall presentation is delightful -- young, appealing dancers infusing an old-fashioned ballet with life. The costumes and scenery are colorful, pretty and flattering to the dancers.Next season the ABT will revive The Bright Stream, another Soviet-era dram ballet that was rechoreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, to great acclaim. It's a work I can't wait to see.


  1. Have you also written about the dram-ballets' spawn, the "dance-dramas" of PRC? I'd love to know the history of the transfer between those two nation's cultural apparati. BTW, still looking for your blog post on Nixon in China....

  2. Petipa meets Socialist realism! Incredible dancing, whatever the style.


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