Flames of Paris

If the Mikhailovsky's Giselle was a strangely lifeless, depressing affair, their Flames of Paris is one of those good old-fashioned Russian extravaganzas that you can't help but love. Mikhail Messerer's production is a reconstruction of Stalin's favorite ballet (no joke). Uncle Joe apparently loved the cheerful, happy depiction of the French revolution, and it was a popular Soviet vehicle. Of course Vassily Vainonen's ballet eventually fell out of favor, but there's been this new-found interest in many of these dram-ballets. Alexei Ratmansky made his own reconstruction for the Bolshoi, and the Mikhailovsky followed suit last year. The Mikhailovsky's ballet apparently adhered much more to the 1932 original, but judging from how short the ballet is, I suspect a lot of filler was excised and we're left with Flames of Paris -- greatest hits!

In a way it makes sense that Stalin loved this ballet so much -- I've never seen a ballet so cavalier about deaths. There are FOUR onstage murders in this ballet (I counted), but all that bloodshed is apparently forgotten a minute later when the whole stage lights up in a blaze of happy folk dancing and flag waving. My favorite example of this cheerful attitude is the character of Therese, the basque dancer. She brings the house down in a justifiably famous basque dance, then somehow she winds up in the Versailles. Then a minute later she's dead. But who cares? We won the Revolution and before anyone can say "R.I.P. Therese" it's time for some more happy dancing! Yay! I can just picture Uncle Joe watching this ballet. "Oh she died." "Who cares? A million people died today. Let's dance!"

In case you care, here's a (rough) outline of the story. There's Jeanne (Oksana Bondareva), a peasant, who meets Philippe, a revolutionary (Ivan Vasiliev). Philippe recruits Jeanne. At the same time at the Versailles, there's this dancing couple named Diana (Irina Perren) and Antoine (Leonid Sarafanov). There's an evil Marquis (Mikhail Venshchikov) who makes a pass at Diana, and ends up killing Antoine. Diana barely has time to grieve before she's recruited for the Revolution. Then there's a famous basque dance in the Parisian square, where Therese (Mariam Ugrekhelidze) dances up a storm. Then the revolutionaries storm the Versailles. Farewell Therese. But yay! The People have won the Revolution, so let's hear the people dance! Ballet ends with the rip-roaring pas de deux for Jeanne and Philippe and more flag-waving.

Let's focus on what's good in this ballet. For one, the score by Boris Asafiev is surprisingly charming. He incorporates a lot of French baroque melodies and some folk tunes and it's not Tchaikovsky, but it's always listenable and pleasing. The scene at the Versailles includes a quaint recreation of French court ballet. Most of all, the ballet includes many chances for Russians to show off their character dancing. You really can't see that in Western companies -- dancers who step onstage and look nothing like ballet dancers, but have the raw power and energy of classical folk dancing. And they really went to town on the production values -- each short scene had a complete scenery and costume change. How did the peasants ever acquire so much colorful fabric? But the stage is always fun and vibrant to look at.

As for the dancers, they weren't perfect but they were right for this ballet. Ivan Vasiliev's ballet vocabulary seems to consist entirely of barrel turns, double/triple tours en l'air, and ... uh, that's about it? He's sloppy -- his landings often result in a loud thud on the floor and forget about fourth or fifth position -- if he's anywhere near vertical that's already refined by his standards. His physique is thick and honestly kind of lumpy. But he gets the crowd going and he can lift ballerinas like paper, and that's what this role needs. Oksana Bondareva is one of those ballerinas where she steps onstage, and you think, "ok, she can crank out fouettes until tomorrow morning." You see those tough turned-in ankles and you know. And crank those fouettes out she did -- a bunch with her free leg extended a la seconde, and then a bunch more doubles and triples. She's clearly a "spunky" dancer, great for Kitri and this kind of stuff. Not very graceful but she gets the job done.

The secondary couple of Diana and Antoine were more interesting. Irina Perren is that ballerina you always encounter in these Russian tours -- refined, exquisite, and, for reasons known only to the company, not dancing leading roles. I kept thinking she would have been a wonderful Giselle -- why didn't she get to dance one on the tour? I looked at her biography and saw that she's no spring chicken -- she graduated in 1998 from the Vaganova Academy. She was equally at home in the court divertissement and then in the last act we got to see her in the Freedom pas de deux that consisted entirely of her in a series of one-handed gravity-defying overhead lifts (the lifter was Marat Shemiunov). But even in that small pas de deux, you saw how her arms and hands were in the most lovely, tapered positions. Leonid Sarafanov in the brief role of Antoine (he gets killed off after about 15 minutes) looked much more comfortable tonight. This role just highlights his superb technique and not his limited acting skills. Veronika Ignatyeva (Cupid) had a moment of weak ankles but was otherwise a total doll.

The real stars though were the folk dancers and in particular the basque dancer Therese (Mariam Ugrekhelidze). My first thought when I saw her was, wow, she's kind of ... large. Not fat, but she has a thick torso and powerful thighs and doesn't look like a ballerina at all. But she could really dance up a storm, and so could the corps de ballet behind her. The other two standouts were Viktor Lebedev and Andrey Yakhnyuk as the Fraternity Brothers. They didn't have much to do besides entrechats but oh my! What beautiful dancers, and what clean beats! And then there was the cute little girl who danced with the crowd in the finale. French Revolution turned into G-rated family fare.

Other random observations about the Mikhailovsky: I couldn't help but notice that the company is more ethnically diverse than the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. You saw a lot of faces that were clearly from central Asia, and varying complexions. Marie Antoinette (Alla Matveyeva) was a hoot -- if anyone's face could scream "let them eat cake" it was her. The orchestra does NOT indulge the lugubrious tempi that prima ballerinas at the Mariinsky like Uliana Lopatkina favor, nor does the conductor allow for dancers to stop the music to milk ovations. And the corps de ballet doesn't have the flawless look of the Mariinsky. Sometimes they look ragged. But that's part of their charm. You realize that this company isn't perfect, but you like them.


  1. I totally agree with your review. The ballet is sort of cheesy, but great fun. If you sit back and just go with it, you will have a great night out. Like you I suspect there was more to this ballet, but some of it is "lost" (no one remembers). Either that or it was a very short ballet. Lebedev is a favorite. He was Antoine when I saw him in this. Ultra elegant, ultra refined. His upper body is more like a Vaganova trained ballerina. Most males mute the arms a little even if they are Vaganova trained, but not Lebedev. I love his dancing. I saw Ugrekhelidze also, and she puts Osipova to shame in the basque dance (Jeanne dances it in the Ratmansky version on video). I didn't think a dancer could have more "oomph!" than Osipova, but she does (at least in that dance). Since the story ballet repetoire is fairly small, I love chances to see something like this!

    1. The program notes said Vainonen revised the ballet several times. I think Messerer probably went with a version that cut out a lot of filler. For instance the first scene is like five minutes.

      I was curious about Irina Perren too, beautiful dancer. Wish I could see more of her.

  2. Apologies for off-topic comment, but just wanted to say that I and evidently many others really, really miss your reviews of ballet DVDs on Amazon!

    1. Thank you. I wish I hadn't deleted all of them :(


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