NEW YORK — The Parisian mobs are restless, and the nascent République française is about to rise. But not before copious blood lust, patriotic pirouetting, boldly mimed declarations of freedom, 1 percenters fleeing the palace, the strains of La Marseillaise and grand jetés of triumph flood the stage.
"The Flames of Paris," a Soviet-era piece notable for its ballet pyrotechnics, tricolor fervor and unapologetically sensational salvos against repression, was a beloved yet until recently nearly lost staple of Russian ballet repertoire.
The St. Petersburg-based Mikhailovsky Ballet and Orchestra will present the West Coast premiere of "The Flames of Paris" from Nov. 28 through 30 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. This restoration of the French Revolution-inspired warhorse once doubled as a symbol of triumph for the Russian Revolution, and was reportedly Joseph Stalin's favorite ballet.
The original production was choreographed by Vasily Vaynonen in 1932 for the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre (now the Mariinsky Theatre), with its Gallic-flavored score by Boris Asafiev. Previously known to most Western audiences only for its flashy wedding pas de deux (mostly excerpted for ballet galas and competitions) between the hero and heroine, Philippe and Jeanne, "The Flames of Paris" will now be seen in its entirety, with revisions by the company's ballet Master in Chief Mikhail Messerer.
Until its New York premiere by the Mikhailovsky Ballet this month, the full-length "Flames" had never been danced in the U.S., and was neglected for several decades after its last performances by the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia in the 1960s. The company is only dancing it in the New York and Orange County engagements.
To reconstruct this version, Messerer, the artistic head of the Mikhailovsky Ballet since 2009, rallied all his resources to retrieve 70% of the ballet and to choreograph the remainder in Vaynonen's style.
"I present the spirit and the letter of Vasily Vaynonen," he says via telephone. "I used as much as I could from the teaching material of the [Bolshoi] film of the ballet and from photographs. I also spoke with people who saw the ballet — my uncle and my mother created original roles. I saw the ballet as a young man in the 1960s at the Bolshoi and then danced in it myself." Messerer's family circle includes his late mother and uncle, Sulamith Messerer, a former Bolshoi ballerina and teacher and Asaf Messerer, the ballet master and choreographer; and a cousin, the legendary Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.
Choreography was not documented through dance notation in the Soviet Union, although Vaynonen's widow's memoirs illuminated many details for Messerer about the choreographer's intentions and style with specific descriptions of the ballet's steps.
"Much of the [totality of] Soviet choreography has been lost," says Messerer. "We Russians need to know our past, because if we don't know from where we've come, we won't be able to move forward."
Vaynonen's legacy, which includes a 1934 production of "The Nutcracker" that served as a model for later versions, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov's at American Ballet Theatre and Yuri Grigorovich's for the Bolshoi Ballet, has been overlooked, says Messerer.
"I would list him along with other great choreographers of the 20th century, including George Balanchine, in the way he used the music as a basis for his movement," he says. 'We are indebted to him for the endurance of the idea of form — so important in ballet."
The ballet's score, which references not only the ballet music of Lully, Gluck and Cherubini, but also French court music and songs of the French Revolution, reflects the eclectic style of the influential Soviet composer Asafiev, a colleague of Prokofiev. The libretto by Nikolay Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev, revised slightly by Messerer for the revival, was an adaptation of the 1896 novel "Les Rouges du Midi" by Félix Gras. Vyacheslav Okunev carefully re-created Dmitriev's original 1932 set and costume designs, somewhat streamlined for today's more athletic dancers.
Set in summer 1792, "The Flames of Paris," secondarily titled "Triumph of the Revolution," reenacts the storming of the Tuileries Palace by Philippe and his squad of the Marseillais, along with his plucky fiancée Jeanne. The uprising occurs after Diana Mireille, a famous actress and guest at the court of Versailles, discovers and leaks a pact signed by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette appealing to the Prussians to send troops to France to quash the revolution.
In addition to its lavish, minuet-laden court scenes and native French folk dances, the ballet ends with a grand divertissement inspired by the open-air celebrations stylized in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the neoclassical artist who befriended Maximilien de Robespierre and became essentially the dictator of the arts during the revolution.
It wasn't a stretch for Soviet leaders — and hence the country's tightly monitored artists — to correlate the French Revolution and other successful historical uprisings to the October Revolution of 1917. "The Flames of Paris," created to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, cleared a path for later Soviet ballets, such as "Spartacus," that served as an allegory for heroic masses rising up to defeat the decadent aristocracy.
"In 1932, memories of the revolution of 1917 were still very fresh," says Messerer, although he says the ballet now resonates differently. "The ideals of liberty and equality are understood in America as well as Europe. Contemporary Russians don't look at it so much as a revolutionary piece as much as an interesting piece of art." Messerer has taught internationally for more than 30 years since defecting from the Soviet Union in 1980.
Perhaps paradoxically, corporate capitalism allowed for the premiere tour of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in the U.S. and its reconstruction of the ballet. Russian billionaire and banana tycoon Vladimir Kekhman pumped $40 million into the Mikhailovsky Theater and its opulent productions. More than 100 of the company's 140 dancers will appear in "The Flames of Paris," accompanied by the 74-piece Mikhailovsky Orchestra, conducted at the Segerstrom Center premiere by Pavel Bubelnikov.
At three of the four Costa Mesa performances, Russian superstar Ivan Vasiliev will perform as Philippe, now a signature role for him. When Vasiliev burns a manège of stratospheric jumps circling the stage, he creates his own Robespierrean reign of terror. The former Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer (now with the Mikhailovsky Ballet and ABT) says his guillotine-sharp aerial maneuvers come from both instinctive talent and superior training.
"It's most important to keep oneself in good shape, especially when young," says Vasiliev rather understatedly. "It's always been interesting to me to be recognized for dancing heroic roles." In Messerer's view, "The role is suitable to him as if the ballet was choreographed for him." (Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky also featured Vasiliev in his version of "The Flames of Paris" for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2008 that used an altered counterrevolutionary libretto.)
Vasiliev, together with his frequent partner Natalia Osipova, last performed at the Segerstrom Center in July in "Solo for Two," a program comprising premieres of contemporary choreography. Switching gears back into superhero mode has required some adjustment, says Vasiliev: "It took time for Natalia and me to recover and be ready for a new season, but that experience was absolutely priceless." Osipova does not dance in the Mikhailovsky "Flames" but has danced it with Vasiliev with the Bolshoi.
So after years of neglect, the heart of "The Flames of Paris" blazes anew for a contemporary viewership in Russia and the U.S. in this Mikhailovsky reconstruction of Vaynonen's original revolutionary ballet.