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Wrapped in The Tricolor, The Mikhailovsky Takes a Stand in 'The Flames of Paris,' 'Halte de Cavalerie,' 'Class Concert' and 'Prelude'

by Robert Johnson
November 20, 2014
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
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Paris, 1792. An angry mob armed with pitchforks surges against the gates of the Tuileries. Inside the palace, aristocrats bow and scrape performing a dance whose all-but-frozen gestures signal their ineffectualness. Heads are about to roll.

That's the premise for "The Flames of Paris," the evening-length ballet by Vasily Vainonen that the Mikhailovsky Ballet from St. Petersburg, Russia, presented last week at the David H. Koch Theater, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. During its first New York season, the Mikhailovsky caused an uproar by giving this legendary pot-boiler its American premiere.

"Legendary," in this case, means unfamiliar in the West. "The Flames of Paris" enjoyed a welcome reception at its 1932 premiere in Leningrad, appealing to the public with its cheerful athleticism and satisfying the Soviet regime's mounting demands for ideological purity. "Flames" remained in the repertory, and spread through Eastern Europe. Yet a censorious review in "The Dancing Times" in 1954 apparently scuttled this ballet's chances of touring beyond the safety of the Iron Curtain. By the time the Soviet Union sent its ballet companies as emissaries to the West, Vainonen's star had passed its zenith. And so, ironically, the only part of "Flames of Paris" that could be exported did not reveal its creators' struggle to preserve the art of classical ballet in a work that would reflect the values of a new society. Western audiences saw only the pas de deux in traditional style that was added as a showcase for ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya; and this duet gained widespread popularity as a concert number.

For the Mikhailovsky Ballet and its artistic director, Mikhail Messerer, however, the historical importance of "The Flames of Paris" and its desuetude suggested an opportunity. Although several of this company's dancers are talented, and three of them - Natalia Osipova, Leonid Sarafanov and Ivan Vasiliev - are known internationally, the Mikhailovsky can't compete on star-power with its more prestigious rivals, the Mariinsky Ballet and the Bolshoi. And while American audiences seem inclined to give any Russian ballet company the benefit of the doubt, the Mikhailovsky lacks brand recognition. So this upstart troupe, founded in 1933 and currently backed by theatrical angel Vladimir Kekhman, must take risks.

The Mikhailovsky also danced some familiar ballets, opening its season with "Giselle" and concluding with "Don Quixote." Yet in addition the company brought "Flames of Paris," which Messerer revived last year, and an intriguing mixed bill titled "Three Centuries of Russian Ballet." The assortment included Marius Petipa's little-known "Halte de Cavalerie" and Asaf Messerer's "Class Concert," with Nacho Duato's "Prelude" a gesture of international good will and a bow in the direction of trendiness.

Compare this touring repertoire with the Bolshoi Ballet's and the Mariinsky's. This summer, the Bolshoi visited the Lincoln Center Festival eliciting yawns with a predictable lineup consisting of "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote," and "Spartacus." The repertoire announced for the Mariinsky's next American appearance, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2015, is scarcely more adventurous offering "Swan Lake" and pieces by over-hyped choreographers Alexei Ratmansky and Benjamin Millepied. Advertising and publicity are the art forms most prominently displayed here. So the Mikhailovsky scored a moral victory, even when its productions fell short. It dared to offer unfamiliar works, giving audiences a fuller and more accurate picture of ballet history. Today, that feels courageous.

Without a doubt, there are other curiosities and perhaps treasures waiting to be unearthed in Russia. A fresh survey of the country's extensive ballet holdings might slow the importation of facile trends; and would quash the stubborn revanchism that makes today's Bolshoi a reliquary for Brezhnev-era productions. A short list of creative alternatives to the well-loved but by now over-exposed "Don Q" might include the evening-length "Esmeralda;" Vakhtang Chabukiani's Spanish-flavored "Laurencia;" and Maya Plisetskaya's "Anna Karenina," which was shamefully air-brushed out of the Mariinsky Ballet's tribute to her husband and collaborator, composer Rodion Shchedrin, during that company's last tour here. It would be enlightening to see Pierre Lacotte's Romantic recreations "Papillon" and "La Laitière Suisse;" and works by suppressed choreographer Leonid Yakobson, such as his fluent "Rodin Triptych" or the ingenious neo-classical pieces set to music by Rossini, Mozart and Bellini.

In the meantime, however, we have "Flames of Paris," a fascinating if unsatisfactory attempt to create a ballet on revolutionary themes. Today we can scarcely imagine what emotions this ballet must have stirred at its premiere, when the events of the Russian Revolution were still fresh in people's minds, and when virtually everyone in the audience would have felt a personal connection to the violence depicted on stage.

Still, the ballet suffered from the need to achieve what we, in supposedly better times, refer to as "accessibility." (The most disheartening aspect of watching "Flames" is realizing that Marxism and mass-market capitalism make the same demands of artists: the public must be coddled.) So in the same year that Stravinsky composed his plaintive "Duo Concertant," and three years before Prokofiev gave birth to his convention-busting "Romeo and Juliet," Boris Asafiev, a former rehearsal pianist at the Mariinsky, provided "Flames" with a tuneful but artistically retrograde score.

This music is not without ambition, flirting with the idea of musical "montage" while choruses singing revolutionary songs like "Ça Ira" and "La Carmagnole" add a touch of grandeur. Yet while illustrating the struggle between the ancien régime and the revolutionaries in a way that any factory worker might understand (the aristocrats' music borrows themes from Lully, while the proletariat is associated with banging percussion) Asafiev produced a score that is condescending and anachronous.

Still, the chief problem with "Flames" is not its music, but its lack of narrative focus. Librettists Nicholai Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev fail to give us a protagonist whose adventures we can follow. The hero of this ballet is "The People," which is to say nobody in particular. Contrast this approach with "Les Misérables," another play with a revolutionary subject, where the struggle between Jean Valjean and his unrelenting nemesis, Inspector Javert, establishes continuity and ties together the subplots.

Characters abound in "Flames of Paris," but the only intrigue involves a letter that the doomed monarch Louis XVI signs requesting Prussian assistance in quelling the uprising. The court actor Antoine Mistral intercepts this missive by chance. Mistral is an interesting fellow, especially when danced by Sarafanov, but as a result of his discovery he is dead by the end of Act I. His lover, the actress Diana Mireille, has an important role to play showing the letter to the revolutionaries as evidence of the king's duplicity. (Like both "Eugene Onegin" and "Khovanshchina," the plot hinges on a letter.) Once the king's treachery in "Flames of Paris" has been revealed, however, the ballet becomes a clash of impersonal forces. Jeanne, the peasant girl who rides all the way from Marseilles to Paris on a cannon; Philippe, the rebellious Marseillais; and Teresa, the doomed Basque partisan, are cardboard figures merely carried along by the tide.

Since the bumptious "Flames of Paris" Pas de Deux does not appear until the climax of Act III, making viewers practically sweat with anticipation, it's a good thing this ballet turns out to have another interesting number. This neglected item is the classical divertissement performed to entertain the nobles in Act I. After a fleet variation for Cupid, danced with authority and clean lines by Veronika Ignatyeva on opening night, the pas de deux for the two actors, Mistral and Mireille, supplies a platform for dancers who must be glamorous personalities and stylists. Their dancing is only perfunctorily connected with the pantomime, in which the man lays his heart at his beloved's feet, but she refuses him until Cupid's arrow melts her disdain. Instead the steps tell a story more Romantic than Rococo, and one that surely reflects the character of the ballet's original interpreters, the exquisite Natalia Dudinskaya and Konstantin Sergeyev.

Her part, at first, consists of walking—much harder than it sounds — -focusing the viewer's eye on the gentle pinprick of her steps on pointe. During the more virtuosic hops on pointe in her variation, the raised leg held in "attitude" and the graceful line of her arms make her body appear to float, and the viewer's eye travels upward as if the foot in contact with the ground bore no weight at all. Her partner cradles and supports her in lifts that seem effortless, simultaneously displaying his strength and masking it; and his variation has an amplitude that makes him appear to soar above the music. Sarafanov is outstanding, but he is the only dancer in the current production who possesses the necessary refinement. Victor Lebedev makes a promising attempt in the second cast, but while he executes steps cleanly he fails to connect them. Irina Perren and Ekaterina Borchenko, who alternate in the role of Mireille, treat the piece as a satire of aristocratic pomp displaying limp and affected manners. Yet this pas de deux—more than the flashy, Act-III number that is now a favorite at competitions — -supplies a genuine test of artistry.

After the divertissement it is a long haul to Act III. Spontaneous outbreaks of folk dancing, including Basque stomping and gentle, Auvergnois twirling, offer little relief. We see the Tuileries attacked in a projection whose heroic gestures recall the Soviet propaganda films of the 1930s. Other projections that show flags snapping in the breeze are clumsy devices concealing changes of scenery. Phillipe's so-called variation in Act II is less a work of choreography than a series of pyrotechnic stunts that hammer the viewer over the head when performed in quick succession. Perhaps only Chabukiani, the Russian ballet's swashbuckling answer to Errol Flynn, could make these aerial maneuvers look suave and convincing. The same could be said for the relentless string of lifts in the allegorical dance of "Freedom," in Act III. Poor Mireille survives the storming of the Tuileries only to be impaled on the arm of a giant and paraded around the square. Like the "improvised" dance that she performs in a long Empire gown à la Maria Medina, in Act I, this dance of "Freedom" seems faithful to history, but its cleverness is wasted. The other allegorical dances, a female pas de quatre ("Equality") and a symmetrical male duo ("Fraternity") are neo-classical divertissements, and hence more interesting.

When the famous "Flames" pas de deux arrives at last, it does its job signaling the agility of the dancers playing Jeanne and Philippe and the supposed healthfulness of Soviet society. Yet even with a change of costume, it's too late to turn these characters into leads. As Philippe, Ivan Vasiliev rolls his eyes and struts—he's a spoiled darling who knows he'll get away with it — -and then hurls himself through the air splitting his rocky thighs, doing his best to point his stubby feet and twisting his slender waist in "rivoltades." He's a phenomenon, but he doesn't have a classic shape and the strain of muscling his way through the repertoire is starting to show. Both Oksana Bondareva, on opening night, and Angelina Vorontsova turned in conscientious performances as Jeanne, though neither one seemed excited to be there. Nonetheless, in spite of its substantial handicaps "The Flames of Paris" is a ballet that deserves to be shown again.

"Halte de Cavalerie" was an interesting choice to open the mixed bill, because the Mikhailovsky began its run at Lincoln Center with "Giselle," and in some ways Petipa's one-act farce seems like a warped reflection of Jean Coralli's and Jules Perrot's two-act tragedy. The setting is the same — -a peasant village in the Rhineland. Once again, a protagonist is torn between two suitors; and the unexpected arrival of outsiders throws the situation into confusion. In "Giselle," the rivalry between Albrecht and Hilarion is a serious matter; but in "Halte de Cavalerie" the fact that Maria and Teresa both love Peter simply leads to hair-pulling. And instead of the hunting party that intrudes fatefully unmasking Albrecht, the cavalry officers who march gaily onto the romantic battleground of "Halte de Cavalerie" are bumbling Ruritanians.

Though Petipa created "Halte" more than 50 years after "Giselle's" premiere, suggesting that the old ballet's plot had become derelict enough for the choreographer to cannibalize it, placing these ballets side-by-side may still tell us something about the anxieties of the Romantic age and about "Giselle's" transformative power.

After introducing Peter's dilemma, "Halte de Cavalerie" passes quickly to a dilatory exposition of dances. These are mostly "national" dances, since Teresa, the female counterpart to Hilarion, is a rustic girl who wears heeled boots. The qualities of these "national" dances also give Petipa a way to characterize the cavalry officers who try to seduce Teresa. The first woos her slickly in a waltz. The second attempts to sweep her off her feet in a violent mazurka; while the old Colonel does his best to court Teresa in a weak-kneed march. When the ensemble returns, everyone dances the czardas. Peter and Maria are the "normal" ones whose love expresses itself as a classical pas de deux coyly accented with flexed feet. The ensemble passages are not particularly inventive, but they enhance this duet by framing it. As Peter, Vasiliev continues to pull faces, but his performance has a dramatic energy that the two, lovely women - Vorontsova as Maria, and Olga Semyonova as Teresa - don't try to match, and they come off looking bland. Maxim Podosyonov is the lubricated Cornet; Vladimir Tsai the peremptory Captain; and Alexey Malakhov plays the sly, old Colonel who sends his subordinates packing.

Though less ambitious than Harald Lander's better-known "Études," Messerer's "Class Concert" brings ballet into the modern age by stripping it of theatrical pretense and allowing the beauty of the classical vocabulary to speak for itself. Messerer harmoniously integrates dancers of various ages and strengths, beginning with young children at the barre and gradually advancing until the stars of the company are competing to outdo one another in the center. The children never disappear entirely, but return off-and-on to demonstrate the progress which we are meant to understand takes place at different levels simultaneously. The most athletic displays naturally prompt the audience to cheer. Yet ballet also offers a stylized image of human beauty, and glorifies its own technique. So when a step is brilliantly executed in a way that also reveals a performer's individuality (Sarafanov's hovering "brisés volés;" Osipova's dynamic "chaînés" turns), sensitive viewers may experience an emotion that approaches religious feeling.

It may seem tempting to label Duato's "Prelude" the most authentically "revolutionary" ballet on the Mikhailovsky's tour, since it strays the furthest from ballet tradition. Yet Duato has arrived late at the barricades, and instead of innovating he follows meekly in the footsteps of his mentor, Jiri Kylián. Long on changes of scenery but short on movement ideas, "Prelude" demonstrates the Russian dancers' ability to adapt to a more grounded style that emphasizes the fluency of the torso. Yet Duato is not the choreographer to explain how these qualities, or others borrowed from contemporary dance, might harmonize with the dancers' classical schooling. The witless circling promenades of the three couples who appear in the "neo-classical" section of "Prelude" show Duato at a loss when it comes to choreographing for women on pointe.

Giving the Mikhailovsky dancers the chance to experience Twyla Tharp would be more profitable. Yet if the Russians truly wish to bring classical ballet into the 21st century, they will need to take an even greater risk and develop choreographers of their own.
Maria Alexandrova in 'The Flames of Paris'.

Maria Alexandrova in "The Flames of Paris".

Photo © & courtesy of Damir Yusupov


Ivan Vasiliev in 'The Flames of Paris'. Photo by Stas Levshin.

Ivan Vasiliev in "The Flames of Paris". Photo by Stas Levshin.


Oksana Bondareva in 'The Flames of Paris'. Photo by Stas Levshin.

Oksana Bondareva in "The Flames of Paris". Photo by Stas Levshin.

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