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The Mikhailovsky Ballet in The Flames of Paris

Posted on July 26, 2013


The Flames of Paris

The Mikhailovsky Ballet, Mikhailovsky Theatre, St Petersburg – July 22, 2013

Within minutes of the curtains closing on the premiere of The Flames of Paris, dancers and staff of the Mikhailovsky Ballet were addressed onstage by the surviving son of Vasily Vainonen. He spoke softly, barely audible above the sound of regimented handclapping, that continued on the other side of the fourth wall. Later, when the hard-core fans’ clamour for yet another curtain call had finally dissipated, Vainonen’s granddaughter – the daughter of his other son – also spoke. Both direct descendants of this great, long-neglected hero of soviet choreography (Vainonen died in 1964) praised the production they had just seen and especially the forensic authenticity achieved by Mikhail Messerer in reconstructing the 1932 ballet, originally made in this city (then renamed Leningrad) for the Kirov Ballet.

Messerer is not the first present-day choreographer to confront Vainonen’s ode to the mother revolution (allegedly Stalin’s favourite ballet) since Alexei Ratmansky’s version for the Bolshoi Ballet has been in the Moscow company’s repertoire since 2008. It will have its UK premiere in August at the conclusion of the Bolshoi’s summer tour to The Royal Opera House. Ratmansky’s choreography is generally described as a “revival” or “reconstruction” but, in truth, it is a variation on the theme of Vainonen’s ballet, with less than a quarter of the choreography (ten of the 47 sequences, to be exact) denoted as “after Vainonen”. Lead characters were invented, which inevitably complicates the narrative; the order of dances (and of Boris Asafiev’s rousing score) has been rearranged significantly and Ratmansky introduced a counter-revolutionary twist that provides a distinctly unhappy and grotesque ending. In fact, the Vainonen “ça ira” dance that concludes the Ratmansky version appears halfway through the second act in the Messerer/Vainonen choreography. By the way, ça ira means “all will be fine” and Asafiev based his theme of this name on an iconic folk song of the French Revolution, dating back to early 1790. There are numerous folk themes in Asafiev’s music, including the unmistakeable melody for the nursery rhyme “Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me” wrapped around the coda of the main pas de deux.

A key difficulty for Messerer to unravel was that Vainonen himself revisited and changed the ballet several times during the years of its popularity in the USSR. Messerer has family connections to the ballet: his mother, Sulamith, and uncle, Asaf, shaped the lead roles of Jeanne and Philippe when the ballet transferred to the Bolshoi in 1933; and in 1947 they received the Stalin Prize for their performances when the Bolshoi revived the ballet after the war. Messerer saw other great dancers perform it as a child (including Raissa Struchkova and her husband Alexander Lapauri) and he himself danced in extracts as a student. The authenticity of his revision comes laden with the unique knowledge distilled from Messerer’s many personal interfaces with Vainonen’s ballet.

Nevertheless, stripping away the layers of Vainonen’s subsequent changes must have been like removing coats of old paint and varnish from an ancient wooden balustrade. Like the latest in a long line of master craftsmen, using the expert recall enriched by the legacy of former generations in the trade, Messerer has succeeded in getting back substantially to the purity of the original. His ballet is certainly close to a genuine “reconstruction” of The Flames of Paris, containing more than 75 per cent of the original steps. The additions he has made are to make use of technology (the filmed sequence of the invasion of the Tuileries Palace is particularly effective), to link sequences or to add depth. For example, in the second scene of Act II when the people storm the palace (immediately after the aforementioned film), the sword fight between Philippe and the Marquis de Beauregard is authentic but the background fighting of revolutionaries against the Swiss Guard is new.

Whereas Ratmansky condensed his action into two acts, Messerer returns to the original structure of a ballet in three shorter acts, which has the impact of driving the action along in a briskly paced, rip-roaring romp. At times, it seems like Don Quixote on amphetamines!  Each act contains several memorable dance numbers and ends on a powerful statement. It also possesses that rare quality of a ballet that doesn’t need the narrative to be explained. It is oodles of fun and a remarkable triumph for the Mikhailovsky Theatre and for Mikhail Messerer.

And we can add that this is a double triumph for Messerer, since the performances of his dancers enhanced the quality of the material and credit for this must go to the choreographer’s matchless capability as a teacher. We could appreciate this coaching in performances throughout the cast but a special accolade must go to the unity achieved in the harmonies of the corps de ballet and especially by the male soloists. Rarely have I seen two dancers keep such perfect tempo in a long sequence of unified steps and jumps as Nikolai Korypayev and Andrei Yakhnyuk in the “Fraternity” duet of the final act. Another fine product of Messerer’s classes is the 20 year-old Victor Lebedev, here giving an excellent account of the ill-fated role of Antoine Mistral, an actor in the Royal Court ballet who is brutally murdered by the evil Marquis, a suitably sinister performance by Mikhail Venshchikov.

The main revelation in this excellent cast was Angelina Vorontsova, a dancer who left the Bolshoi at the end of last month (for the full drama of the story read On the edge in the July issue of Dancing Times). She joined the Mikhailovsky on a full-time contract on the day of this performance and was rewarded with the status of principal dancer the following morning. Already scheduled to dance the lead role of Jeanne in the second cast, she stepped up to also dance in the first cast at very little notice, replacing Ekaterina Borchenko in the key role of the actress, Diana Mireille.

Vorontsova delivered a storming performance, nailing the fiendishly difficult pizzicato footwork of the “Amour” pas de deux (one of the few original Vainonen dances that is also in the Ratmansky version, and which Vorontsova danced at the Bolshoi); and in a triumphant “Freedom” pas de deux in the final act, which symbolises the victory of the revolution. This was an entirely new dance for Vorontsova, mastered in quick time, in which her body is thrown and posed into several remarkable presages and high lifts by the secure and strong partnering of Marat Shemiunov (a regular partner of the Maryinsky ballerina, Uliana Lopatkina, in galas around the world). I can’t recall seeing so many strenuous lifts in a single duet.

I’m not convinced Vorontsova meets the Russian aesthetic for Odette in Swan Lake but she is much more likely to get the chance to prove her worth in this most iconic role with her new employers. She is, however, perfectly suited to these two leading roles in The Flames of Paris and I look forward to her Kitri in Don Quixote (which will follow in the autumn). St Petersburg does not have a Coppélia in the current repertory of either the Maryinsky or the Mikhailovsky and this has to be an omission that will be rectified soon. If a new (or new-old) production comes to the theatre on Arts Square then Vorontsova is a delicious prospect as Swanilda.

I’m impressed with this first sighting and look forward to following the career of this delightful and charismatic young dancer as it unfolds. I understand that Messerer was persuaded to audition Vorontsova following a telephone call from her childhood ballet teacher in Voronezh. It seems to have been an inspirational career-enhancing move: after months of unimaginable controversy in Moscow, she is now in a good place with an exciting repertory and an exceptional, no-nonsense teacher to guide her.        

Fresh from her success in last month’s Moscow International Ballet Competition, where she won the only Gold Medal achieved by a ballerina in the main contest, Oksana Bondareva took the opening night role of the revolutionary heroine, Jeanne. She gave a spritely, gamine performance although Bondareva has not yet mastered the craft of projecting herself from a crowded stage. She was in the shade of both Vorontsova’s Mireille and Ivan Vasiliev’s performance as the Marseillaise leader, Philippe. Nevertheless Bondareva’s mastery of the delicate, filigree technique in the intricate Vainonen variation of the Act III pas deux provided an effective contrast to (and contest with) the virtuoso athleticism of Philippe’s variation.

Not only is Vasiliev one of the world’s most sought-after dancers, but this was his second premiere in the role, having led the first cast of Ratmansky’s production, back in 2008. The enthusiastic audience applauded every enormous leap and roared throughout the ferocious, whirligig rotations of this human spinning top. One charming cameo came in his opening brief sequence of jumps in Act II. The extras in this Parisian Square included a little infant girl and as she saw this explosive, leaping man bounding towards her, the tiny tot took evasive action. It was understandable. In the later sword-carrying sequence of six jumps, Vasiliev missed the final “helicopter” (where an extra flip means landing on the trailing leg) but – in its place – he managed to add two alternatives, giving seven mighty jumps in the same musical phrasing as the usual six.

Boris Asafiev created a superb score for ballet and rarely can it have been performed so well as in the excellent acoustics and charming intimacy of this gem of an opera house. The velvety lushness of the revolutionary songs were given rich clarity by the Mikhailovsky orchestra under the house conductor, Valery Ovsyanikov, a regular at Covent Garden.

So, here we now have an authentic revival of a ballet that is not just of its time but timeless; an enjoyable romp in which preparatory scenes are reduced to the bare necessity; where the good guys triumph over the nasty aristos (although, in a fascinating vignette the King is shown to be reluctant to sign the order asking the Prussians to assist in putting down the revolution); and above all where varied, intricate and exciting dance is as prevalent as the enamel and jewels encrusted onto a Fabergé egg.

The Flames of Paris have been reignited in a celebration as imposing as the Arc de Triomphe that features as the backdrop for the final scene; a triumph for the Mikhailovsky Ballet, a success for the dancers, designers, orchestra and staff (not forgetting the vital sponsorship of Dmitri Astafiev, head of a St Petersburg-based housebuilder). Above all these accolades, it is yet another magnificent achievement to set against ballet’s dynastic name of Messerer.            

Graham Watts      

Note – the author attended this performance as a guest of the Mikhailovsky Theatre          


Pictured: The Mikhailovsky Ballet in Act III of The Flames of Paris. At the centre is Oksana Bondareva, Ivan Vasiliev and Angelina Vorontsova. Photograph by Stas Levshin.


Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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