Plenty of Flames – but no Real Fire – from the Bolshoi Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boris Asafiev, The Flames of Paris: Soloists and Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet, Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre / Pavel Sorokin (conductor), Royal Opera House, London, 6.8.2016. (JPr)

Maria Alexandrova as Jeanne (c) Elena Fetisova


Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky (with use of Vasily Vainonen’s original)
Designs: Ilya Utkin and Evengy Monakhov
Costumes: Elena Markovskaya
Dramatic conception: Yuri Burlaka

Principal Dancers:

Maria Alexandrova (Jeanne)
Denis Savin (Jerome)
Vladislav Lantratov (Philippe)
Adeline (Nina Kaptsova)
Mireille de Poitiers (Anna Tikhomirova)
Antoine Mistral (Artem Ovcharenko)

A famous French actor, Coquelin, once declared: ‘Art is not real life, not even its reflection. Art is itself a creator. It creates its own life, outside time and space, beautiful in its own abstraction.’ I’m happy to go along with that 99% of the time but The Flames of Paris was something that I felt increasingly uneasy about as the short evening unfolded. In the week when Paris has witnessed the aftermath of a firebomb attack and during a period in human history when there are frequent beheadings for revolutionary or religious reasons, the Bolshoi Ballet present their version of the French Revolution.

Alexei Ratmansky’s exhumation of the original 1932 ballet (Stalin’s favourite apparently) has less of the scope, pageantry and pathos of an all-dancing Les Misérables and was more like a ballet version of Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. I am sure that was Kenneth Williams as Citizen Camembert who at the end of the evening hands the luckless Jerome the head of the girl, Adeline, he loves. Where was Sid James as the Scarlet Pimpernel (known in the film as The Black Fingernail!) when you needed him to save Adeline from the guillotine? Those involved in the revolt go to fight (and some die) with broad grins on their faces and are involved in some rollicking dances. The French nobility are shown either as lecherous or effete and await their fate … also often with broad grins on their faces though they are involved in rather more courtly dances, or being entertained by an extraordinarily long-drawn-out twee divertissement.

When this production created a sensation during its UK première in 2013 it was because of the return to the company of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev as guest artists and their blazing performances as Jeanne and Philippe appears to have transcended the hokum. There were no performances here to now raise The Flames of Paris above the routine nor to suggest two performances in a day of such a high-octane ‘show’ was a good idea in the middle of their 60th anniversary three-week season, courtesy of the redoubtable Victor Hochhauser (now in his nineties). On this basis – in my humble opinion – I would suggest the Bolshoi Ballet should stick to fairy-tale and similar fantasy ballets rather than present historical ‘social commentary’. Indeed, the choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, was much more successful with his Cinderella for the recent visiting Australians (my review) than with this The Flames of Paris.

What we see is set during the French Revolution. Vasily Vainonen’s original production seems to have been a typical piece of Soviet ‘agitprop’ which was of-its-time and featured rich decadent aristos, down-trodden starving peasants and revolutionaries who are cheered on as they bring down their lords and masters. In 2008 Alexei Ratmansky was the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director and updated the original scenario somewhat filleting it into two acts rather than four. The story is pretty thin and he has softened all the propaganda to the extent that death becomes irrelevant and it doesn’t matter as long as everyone is bounding around at high speed smiling broadly. At the first appearance of a frequently-seen cannon, a girl (Jeanne) meets a brash young Marseillais, Philippe, instantaneously falls in love, and she will soon follow him to be transformed into the standard-bearing figurehead of the revolt. Jeanne encounters the lecherous Marquis Costa de Beauregard (Semyon Chudin) wanting to invoke his droit du seigneur prerogative. Her brother, Jerome, comes to his sister’s aid but is beaten up by the Count’s men and thrown in prison before being freed by the Marquis’s daughter, Adeline, who leaves her cosseted life to join him on the march on Paris.

And that is about it and any sense of character development or drama is secondary to high-octane ensemble rushing around. There is the Act I ballet at the court of King Louis XVI (Denis Medvedev) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Maria Zharkova) about Rinaldo and Armida when everything stalls. However, the only time the frantic action really slows down is about two thirds the way through for a lyrical adagio duet for Jerome and Adeline which seems to have come from an entirely different ballet. The attack on the Tuileries Palace is instantly successful, cue more rollicking dancing despite the dead bodies which have littered the stage. (This is the perfect ballet for the video game generation of the twenty-first century where death has little consequence.) Soon the condemned Marquis is led to the guillotine, Adeline’s real identity is discovered, she is denounced by the mob and quickly executed at the back of the stage. Ratmansky allows Jerome a few seconds to mourn with her decapitated head in his hands but as the synopsis puts it ‘The celebration continues. To the strains of Ça ira [‘It’ll be fine’], the triumphant populace moves downstage towards the audience’ and the curtain soon falls.

Boris Asafiev’s exuberant score is based on traditional songs of the French Revolution including that final Ça ira and the very-familiar Marseillaise heard – presumably pre-recorded – offstage as Act I ends. The playing of the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Ballet under Pavel Sorokin was one of the evening’s undoubted successes. He knows Covent Garden well – not only from his visits with the Bolshoi – but as a guest conductor for the Royal Ballet.

The costumes are everything you would expect from Les Misérables, TV’s Versailles or The Musketeers but the flimsy toy-theatre sets must surely be a touring version of the real thing. There was a backdrop of the Tuileries Palace at one point with looked as if it had been populated with figures painted by L S Lowry.

I suppose if you didn’t know the story – few around me had a programme (nor did I for that matter) – or simply ignored it, you could luxuriate in the dancing which often had an ‘aren’t I great’ bravura to it. The dancers’ celebrations at the footlights with arms aloft gave a hint of Russian circus to the proceedings. I don’t know how cast changes affected the conclusion of Act I but the actress (Armida) and actor (Rinaldo) who perform at the royal palace were not taken by the advertised Yulia Stepanova and Denis Rodkin but by Anna Tikhomirova and Artem Ovcharenko (a couple in real life). Their dancing had a suitable otherworldliness about it, Tikhomirova is slender-limbed with exaggerated extensions and Ovcharenko had a hint of Nureyev about him, though his dancing lacked some presence. Daria Khokhlova was a spirited Amour whose love arrows makes Rinaldo fall in love with Armida before he spurns her for his Wili-like bride who arrives on a ludicrously shaky cut-out ship.

As the ballet races to its denouement in Act II the dance quotient is upped starting with a wine-fuelled Auvergne dance, followed by the Marseillaise dance, then the volatile dance of the Basques starts up, in which all the chief characters stomp and strut their stuff: Jeanne, Philippe, Adeline, Jerome and Gilbert, the captain of the Marseillais (Vitaly Biktimirov). I will give the benefit of the doubt and say that occasional lack of precision during some of this was deliberate due to their drunken antics. Finally, there was the opportunity to see the constantly moving stars of The Flames of Paris Tamara Rojo lookalike Maria Alexandrova (Jeanne) and Vladislav Lantratov (Philippe) – let even further off the leash for the Act II pas de deux. Undoubtedly full of great technical achievement – his leaps and her faultless fouettés – there was little of the ‘wow’ factor I was hoping for and I had the feeling that they had in their minds there was still more dancing for them to do in this short London season.

At the end there was a thunderous ovation for all concerned and who is to say I am right whilst they were wrong? I’m glad to have seen The Flames of Paris once but would I want to see it again? I’m not sure … but never say never!

Jim Pritchard

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