The Flames of Paris, Mikhailovsky Theatre, St Petersburg – review

The drums of revolution beat out once more in St Petersburg with Mikhail Messerer’s pitch-perfect restoration of Vasily Vainonen’s 1932 The Flames of Paris for the Mikhailovsky Ballet. This has been a labour of love for Messerer, today’s foremost champion of the USSR’s rich choreographic legacy, who has rescued as much as is possible of the original movement.

But this is no dry, academic exercise; what emerges is a potent work, admirable in its drive and in its execution. The house orchestra under Valery Ovsyanikov’s driven baton play Boris Asafiev’s tremendous score, a mix of Soviet blast and period pastiche, with panache, and the meticulous re-creators of Vladimir Dmitriev’s original sets and costumes provide a picture-book setting of revolutionary France.

Flames was said to be Stalin’s favourite ballet, and it is easy to see why: seething masses rise up to rid themselves of decadent despots in a flurry of balletic fervour. Not a wisp of irony clouds Messerer’s production, and the company dances this simple tale with clear-eyed commitment. The movement ranges from purely classical through “Bolshoi bravura” to character dances, all performed with elan.

Angelina Vorontsova and Victor Lebedev were impeccable in the court divertissement, while Mariam Ugrekhelidze’s eyes flamed with revolutionary zeal as she tore round the stage as the Marianne figure Teresa. Vorontsova reappeared in the flashy Freedom pas de deux, lifted and thrown with seeming insouciance by the stalwart Marat Shemiunov.

It is tribute to the excellence of the company that the main roles were part of this impressive whole rather than star turns. And turn they did: as the peasant girl Jeanne, home-grown ballerina Oksana Bondareva is a human centrifuge, endless spins executed with dizzying speed, the final pas de deux a balletic assault course, holding no terrors. Ivan Vasiliev is no stranger to Philippe (he created the role in Alexei Ratmansky’s 2008 version) but tore into this original version with renewed vigour, launching himself into seemingly suicidal leaps and turns, his eyes flashing.

But Flames was not his alone, nor hers; it was the Mikhailovsky’s and it was Messerer’s. Vainonen
has returned.

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