The Flames of Paris made its U.S. debut Friday at Lincoln Center with Mikhailovsky Ballet. The original work premiered in 1932, commissioned to show people rising up against tyranny to commemorate of the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The work was purported to be Stalin’s favorite ballet.
The current Mikhailovsky version, which premiered in 2013, is true to the original version choreographed by Vasily Vaynonen with revisions by Mikhailovsky Artistic Director Mikhail Messerer. Messerer has a gold plated Russian ballet pedigree; his mother Sulamith and uncle Asaf were stars of Russian ballet and played prominent roles in the original production (Sulamith was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1947 for her portrayal as Jeanne in the production according to the program notes) and his cousin is legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.
Large portions of the original choreography were retained through Mikhail’s recollection of the ballet, film footage, and memories of the dancers. From the program notes, Mikhail explains that when he was a child…
…at home we had long discussions about many aspects of this ballet. I took note of the pointers that Vaynonen gave the artists and memorized them. My own personal impressions and recollections were of great help when it came to working on this ballet. Most of the changes I have made were unavoidable; unfortunately, much has been irretrievable lost, so one must fill in the gaps by working on the style and spirit of the original author. Throughout our preparations for the premier, I asked myself at every stage of rehearsals, “How would Vaynonen stage this scene if he were around today?”
From the program notes, it is interesting that Mikhail believes that Vaynonen ranks alongside Balanchine as one of the outstanding figures of 20th century ballet.
I saw the Friday and Saturday evening performances. The fast-paced production moves quickly through five scenes in three acts, all in two hours and ten minutes, including two 20-minute intermissions. The work is in the Le Corsaire/Don Quixote mold with bravura dancing from numerous dancers, with many “what did that dancer do?” moments. With the fast, rapidly moving action, it is the type of ballet that would capture the attention and interest of those not enamored with ballet. Although there is tragedy with several deaths, it is difficult to take it too seriously given how rapidly the story moves on to the next segment, generally to briskly paced, exciting dancing.
The first scene captures the flag waving revolutionary spirit of the work. Peasants Jeanne (Oksana Bondareva) and her father are threatened by the evil Marquis and are rescued by a squad of national guard from the city of Marseille led by Philippe (Ivan Vasiliev). After the Marquis escapes, Philippe leads his troops in a rousing, flag waving tribute to the revolution.
The second scene is set in the regal palace of King Louis XVI. The first part consists of formal 18th century classical dancing from Diana Mireille, an actress (Principal Dancer Irina Perren) and Antoine Mistral, an actor (Leonid Sarafanov on Thursday and Victor Lebedev on Saturday evening) clad in white with a powdered wig. After the dancing, the Marquis storms into the palace and reads a message to the Prussians, requesting military assistance to fight the revolutionaries. Queen Marie Antoinette is enthusiastic about the proposal; King Louis XVI hesitates, but ultimately signs the request. Antoine enters and discovers the Appeal to Prussia document. The Marquis shoots and kills him. Diana discovers his lifeless body and the appeal document. Revolutionary music blares as she reads the document and vows to fight the monarchy.
Act II takes place in a square in Paris. Diana shows the crowd the appeal to Prussia that confirms the betrayal of the aristocracy. Philippe calls the crowd to storm the Tuileries, the palace of the King and Queen. In the palace, the Marquis and Philippe fight. Teresa is shot dead by an officer. The mourning is quick as the curtain falls.
In the spirit of Don Quixote, Act III marks the celebration of the capture of the palace and the wedding of Jeanne and Philippe with numerous dances.
There are a number of dancing roles and Mikhailovsky showed off its great depth with a number of fine performances. Oksana Bondareva has great stage presence and turning ability. She joined Mikhailovsky in 2009 and moved to the Mariinsky Ballet in 2014. She is currently a Guest Principal at Mikhailovsky. She displayed two turn sections that I have never seen before. First, she did 16 fouettés with her leg à la seconde; rather than going into a posse position, she kept her leg straight. Then on to more conventional single, double, and triple fouettés. In the second act, she performed fouettés, changing her spot in quarter turns to side, back, side, and front again, but did so traveling in a circle. Very unique.
Principal Dancers Leonid Sarafanov and Victor Lebedev displayed their great technique as Antoine Mistral, an actor. Both have a great line, nice feet, and solid extensions (see photo of Leonid above). Principal Dancer Inna Perren as Diana Mireille, an actress had nice footwork in her hopping turns. The Allegoric Dances of Act III are divertissement-type dances that, unlike many ballets, are not boring. The Freedom dance with Principal Dancers Marat Shemiunov and Irina Perren had dramatic circus lifts typically seen at nearby Big Apple Circus rather than at Koch Theater.
First Soloist Andrey Yakhnyuk and Principal Dancer Victor Lebedev had substantial beat and tour duty in the Fraternity dance. Nicely done and in synch, the dance reminded me of the Neapolitan Dance in Sleeping Beauty. Corps member Mariam Ugrekhelidze was Teresa and led the Basques with rousing, energetic character dancing.
In the end, it is lead revolutionary Philippe’s show. Ivan Vasiliev did not lack in confidence as he strutted on stage with his steps audible in the second row before his solo. What revolutionary in history does not have an excessive level of self-assurance?
He pulled all the tricks out of his bag: double assembles to the knee, nice double tours with arms in fifth position (overhead) to three consecutive double tours, wide split double cabrioles derriere, amazing triple sauté de basques on a diagonal (although he faltered a bit Saturday). On his turns in second position (leg extended to the side) he tends to pull in to passe very slowly, like a figure skater. Daniil Simkin at ABT also does this. It looks great when it works. He is able to do 5-6-7-8 turns, although he is generally turned in on his passe position at the end.
Ivan is not my first choice in ballets such as Giselle or Symphony in C. However, his act works well in Philippe-type roles where confidence and bravura are necessary with no nuance required.
The company takes a well deserved day off Monday and performs Three Centuries of Russian Ballet Tuesday and Wednesday with Don Quixote Thursday through Sunday for five performances. Ivan will dance the lead in three performances.