BWW Reviews: The Mikhailovsky Ballet's THE FLAMES OF PARIS

By: Nov. 24, 2014
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Remember high school history. Some of us loved it; others hated it. Best of all, there were the teachers. They tried to educate us about British royalty, Swedish neutrality, or crumbling Hapsburg empires. How I wish they had known The Flames of Paris back then. Just think, in less than two hours we'd have known all about the French Revolution. While there were plenty of Civil War movies-just in case we needed some brain reinforcement for our exams-the French Revolution was a very deep ocean away. I know we had all seen Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette or some version of A Tale of Two Cities. But that's as far as most of us got to a real understanding of French history. Besides, they spoke a strange language, and in those days you didn't want to be caught being bi-lingual.

The Flames of Paris, music by Boris Asafiev and original choreography by Vasily Vaynonen (here revised by ballet master, Mikhail Messerer), debuted at the Mariinsky Theatre on November 1933 and was later mounted at the Bolshoi on June 6, 1933. Ostensibly a tale of the French Revolution to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was an immediate success. I suppose it was because these were also the years of the Great Famine, the time when you know-or don't-that Stalin starved somewhere between four and five million peasants in the Ukraine. So on one hand the Russian people could observe a great celebration on stage and, on the other, a great death in reality. Somehow I don't think the latter was advertised in Pravda.

Alexei Ratmanasky, the well-known Russian choreographer now in residence all over the world, who choreographed his own version of Flames, might want to tackle such other historic times as the Great Purge, Katyn, the Doctor's Plot, the Eastern Front, or Khrushchev's Denunciation of Stalin. They're all excellent source material, even if they may not suit the needs of a ballet. Why am I talking? Neither does The Flames of Paris.

There is little to say for the ballet, save the costumes and the third act pas de deux, which has been seen in hundreds of ballet competitions and The Best of the Bolshoi presentations the world over. What we get are repetitive crowd scenes, courtiers mindlessly dancing, and revolutionaries bursting from stage right to stage left. This could have been accomplished in 45 minutes or less.

At least the dancing was superb: Angelna Vorontsova, Ivan Zaytsev, Victor Lebedev and Ekaterina Borchenko in the lead roles showed not only technical skills beyond reproach, but even some dignity during the mad proceedings. What they really needed was good choreography, not to mention a good ballet.

I would have preferred to see a production of Sleeping Beauty. A ballet with beautiful music, sumptuous dancing, allegory, enlightenment, and coherence. Flames of Paris may hold a place in history, and while I am glad to have seen it, once is definitely enough. After the company's Giselle it was a disappointment to witness what was, to me, a messy and insensitive production-although there are those who will attest that this ballet is one of their all time favorites, especially now that it has re-entered the universal ballet repertory. I suppose that is what makes criticism so interesting: our very diverse perceptions.

As far as I am concerned, we deserve better than that. Perhaps when the Mikhailovsky Ballet returns again they will hire me to put together their next North American tour. But I doubt it. I probably will be denounced by Putin by then.

Photograph: Costas


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