David H. Koch Theater
November 15, 2014
The Flames of Paris
Choreography by Vasily Vaynonen revised by Mikhail Messerer
Music by Boris Asafiev
Libretto by Nikolay Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev revised by Mikhail Messerer
after the novel Les Rouges du Midi by Félix Gras
Stage and Costume Design by Vladimir Dmitriev
Staging by Mikhail Messerer
Revival of the Stage and Costume Design: Vyacheslav Okunev
Lighting Design by Alexander Kibitkin
Move over Les Miz! The Flames of Paris is an opulent, highly muscular, charged ballet that’s mass entertainment complete with sward-fighting, clog dancing, folk music and enough revolutionary zeal to please any audience. It also makes the French Revolution look like an event that took place between dessert and coffee – no guillotines, no blood and almost no tragedy if you don’t count the two on-stage deaths that register more as plot lines than emotional grabbers.
The story is complicated, involving peasants; a Basque contingent; aristocrats at the court of Louis XVl and Marie Antoinette who parade around in sumptuous costumes – Marie in a towering wig, unaware of what lies ahead; Cupid; actors and more. I let some of the details go and just enjoyed the flash and dash.
Oksana Bondareva, in the role of Jeanne, a peasant girl, is a spectacular turner who effortlessly pulls out quadruple pirouettes and fouettée turns while Ivan Vasiliev, as Phillipe, stuns with huge, multiple split jumps that often end down on one knee. Before his solo in the pas de deux, he walks with his back to the audience to the rear of the stage with a “watch me, I’m about to be fantastic” air that’s both pure ham and justifiably bold. (The audience, full of Russians, cheered.)
The company handles classic ballet well but are at their most Russian (and most enjoyable) when they move to Cossack dancing, full of heel kicks, and clog dances with a “swing your partner” quality. Despite the bravura aspects of the principals, the corps gets a chance to pull out all the stops and does so, down to a tiny little girl who dances in Act III amidst people celebrating the capture of the Tuileries. Many of the costumes in this act are variations on Greek tunics enlivened with the Tricolour as sashes, worn in the hair or as sleeves, a big contrast to the stylized royal blue and white court dresses worn in the Act 1 ball scene.
The music is fairly forgettable but marked with snatches of the La Marseillaise and Ca Ira, another song of the French Revolution that loosely translates as “everything will be all right.” M. Messerer, who staged the production, frequently uses full screen projections to cover during scene changes including images of the royalist flag, the Tricolour and angry crowds storming buildings. It’s an effective mechanism if a little overused.
This is the first time the Mikhailovsky Ballet has visited the United States and I hope it’s not the last. They dance Flames of Paris with huge energy and conviction, qualities this robust crowd-pleaser requires. Forget the actual history of the Revolution and just watch. If ballet was an Olympic sport, the Mikhailovsky would be going for the gold.