Flames of Paris

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The French Revolution Burns Onstage

By Michael Crabb

Russia's acclaimed Mikhailovsky Ballet makes its West Coast debut at the Center with the French Revolution like you've never seen it!

If anyone still suffers from the misconception that ballet restricts itself to tales of medieval princes mooning over unattainable maidens in moonlit forest glades, Russia's acclaimed Mikhailovsky Ballet has the perfect antidote. In its United States debut—New York's Lincoln Center is the only other tour stop—the St. Petersburg-based troupe roars into Orange County brandishing spears and rifles and chanting the blood-cry of revolution.

The Flames of Paris, a spectacular three-act work, is an irresistible feast of eye-poppingly athletic dancing, (global ballet superstar/heartthrob Ivan Vasiliev, most recently seen on the Segerstrom Hall stage this summer in Solo for Two, leads the cast), affecting romance and stirring social fervor, all played out on an epic scale against the historical backdrop of the French Revolution.

There are more blue, white and red Tricolors flying in this production than you'd see at a Bastille Day celebration—and not a gossamer-draped nymph, dryad or wili in sight. Unlike most story ballets where the privileged hold unchallenged sway over the poor and downtrodden, it's the peasants who emerge triumphant from The Flames of Paris, inspired in their dream of a democratic republic by the glorious precedent of the American Revolution.

Mikhailovsky Ballet: The Flames of Paris video

That said, The Flames of Paris is still a classical ballet in the sense that it deploys, albeit in turbo-charged form, the same vocabulary of steps that makes such ballets as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty enduring favorites. It adds to this vivid character dances inflected in a variety of folk styles and sweeping crowd scenes to complement more intimate solos and duets.

And like those famous 19th-century, Tchaikovsky-scored works, The Flames of Paris, though younger, is a classic in its own right, in character and tone more akin to such full-blooded ballet romps as Don Quixote and Le Corsaire, both previously seen in Segerstrom Hall.

It's one of the oddest twists of cultural history that ballet, by birth and character an aristocratic art form that reached its classical apogee in Tsarist Russia, survived the Bolshevik Revolution. Even so, it was touch and go for a while and ballet in the Soviet Union had to adapt to the demands of social realism.

It was in this context that in 1932 a then young Vasily Vainonen, a too-readily forgotten master choreographer, devised The Flames of Paris as a work that would pay tribute to a historically successful political upheaval and by association help legitimize its later Soviet equivalent.

The Flames of Paris was first produced for the then Kirov, now Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. It proved so popular it was restaged at the Bolshoi in Moscow the next year and continued as a staple of the repertoire for more than 30 years. Then, like several other once-lauded ballets of the early Soviet era, it was relegated to mothballs as a new genre of super-athletic works by a younger generation of choreographers won official approval. The Flames of Paris might have been permanently relegated to the dustbin of history had it not been for American Ballet Theatre artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.

During his time as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, (2004 to 2008), Ratmansky reviewed the company's neglected Soviet-era repertoire and, among other works, decided to revive The Flames of Paris. Although often spoken of as a "reconstruction," Ratmansky's generally well-received 2008 staging made significant changes to the Vainonen original, particularly by injecting an ambiguous plot twist.

Mikhail Messerer, the Mikhailovsky's chief choreographer and the man responsible for the totally independent 2013 revival being presented at the Center, says he loves Ratmansky's version.

"I admire how he has turned a pro-revolutionary ballet into an almost counter-revolutionary one," says Messerer, but adds that his own objectives were distinctly different. "In our version," he says, "we attempted to stay true not only to the letter but also to the spirit of the original production."

Though reared within a celebrated family of Russian ballet luminaries, Messerer chose to leave his homeland in 1980. Messerer became revered as an advanced teacher, most notably at Britain's Royal Ballet, before receiving an invitation in 2009 to join the artistic staff of the Mikhailovsky Ballet, then in the full throws of a major renaissance that, with Messerer's crucial help as ballet master, has quickly placed it on an international par with the until now more widely known Mariinsky and Bolshoi.

Something Messerer noted and consistently valued about Western ballet is its respect for tradition.

"I believe it's very difficult to move forward without remembering one's past," he says. "In other countries they value their 20th-century ballet heritage; say, Balanchine in America; Ashton in England. I felt it was only fair that, while still possible, one could bring back to life the works of major Soviet choreographers, including Vasily Vainonen."

This explains Messerer's concern to give the Mikhailovsky Ballet a production of The Flames of Paris that is, so far as possible, both faithful to the original and exciting for today's audiences.

Fortunately Messerer knew it first hand, having performed in the ballet during his early Moscow student days as well as viewing several later performances. He also drew on the memories of former dancers, on notes, surviving film footage from the 1950s and a wealth of period photographs. Meanwhile, designer Vyacheslav Okunev was able to refer to Vladimir Dmitriev original set sketches from 1932. Boris Asafyev's rousing score, drawing on songs of the French Revolution, had survived intact.

Messerer says at least 70 percent of his production is attributable to Vainonen. The rest Messerer has choreographed to blend seamlessly with the original.

"I would put myself in the shoes of the original creators of this ballet and imagine how they would stage it now, with the important consideration being that it is interesting for today's spectators."

As for the enthusiastic response the Mikhailovsky Ballet has been earning with Messerer's revival of The Flames of Paris, he believes it's because the work still carries a relevant message.

"We all know only too well that seas of blood were shed on both sides in the French Revolution, but even today we still base our life on the idealistic principles of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity fought for by the French revolutionaries."

Michael Crabb is a senior advising editor of Dance magazine and dance critic of The Toronto Star.

 

SEGERSTROM HALL
Dates: November 28–30, 2014
For tickets and information, visit SCFTA.org
or call (714) 556–2787.
Group services: (714) 755–0236


The Center's International Dance Series is made possible by:
Audrey Steele Burnand Endowed Fund for International Dance
The Segerstrom Foundation Endowment for Great Performances

With special underwriting from:
Mary and Richard Cramer

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