In Memoriam of the Great French Revolution


Each of the Bolshoi Ballet’s ’restoration’ projects has its own specific character. The present project, perhaps, is one of the most interesting and unusual. The Flames of Paris belongs neither to the pearls of the pure classics of classical dance (take, for instance, the recently restored Le Corsaire), nor to the works of the Soviet period, which were subjected to uncalled for attacks at the hands of the powers that be (take, for instance, The Bright Stream). Though it did not disappear without trace, the greater part of it has been lost...

Produced in the 30’s of the last century in Leningrad, at the then Kirov (today Mariynsky) Theatre, and soon transferred to the Bolshoi, it was to become one of Stalin’s — who was not a particular fan of this genre of the performing arts — favorite ballets. The Flames of Paris was presented on the eve of the anniversary of the October Revolution, and later continued to be included in the ranks of works which were always brought out for an airing on anniversaries of this sort. And this is hardly surprising, the flames of Paris, after all, is about the conflagration of the great French Revolution. And it had a new ’hero’ type which, up to then, had not been encountered in ballet — one of its main characters was the populace, revolutionary in mood and ready for action.

The 30’s of the last century, saw the age of ’dramballet’. Theatre directors actively collaborated with the choreographers. Dance was called for only when justified by the development of the action. And the plot unfolded via pantomime, various forms of ’walk’ and other devices of the sort. But Vasily Vainonen liked to mount dances and, since in his youth, he had been a character (folk) dancer, gave his preference to this dance form. His The Flames of Paris brought out on stage, virtually the whole Company and provided first-rate material for a demonstration of the brilliant skills of the numerous character dancers, there were also plenty of classical numbers to perform, both from the point of view of dance and acting. The plot, moreover, made it possible to avoid head-on collision with the canon of ’dramballet’. How, after all, if not via dance, was the populace expected to express its emotions?

Alexei Ratmanky, who likes to play with styles, could hardly have passed this title by. If it were not for Petipa, but also the achievements of the Soviet choreographers, Russian ballet would not have secured the position which it now occupies in the world. It is important to know one’s history, particularly as, if its ’lessons’ are not heeded to, they only too easily forgotten.

Delighting in Vainonen’s rhythmically refined dance combinations — his nickname was Vaska-the syncopator — Ratmansky has attempted to make maximum use of the preserved fragments in his new ballet. Interwoven into its fabric, are the Vainonen Basque dance, the Mireille and Antoine Mistral pas de deux, the farandola, two carmagnoles and, of course, the famous Jeanne and Philippe pas de deux, the perennially popular ballet competition and concert number.

Choreographic considerations apart, Alexei Ratmansky was also motivated in his choice by ’ideological’ factors. Perhaps, in our fairly cynical age, it is worth remembering how the aspiration to “freedom, equality and brotherhood” once had the power to bond people together. At any rate, it remains one of the finest slogans in mankind’s history. On 14 July each year, the whole of France celebrates the anniversary of the great French Revolution. And the Marseillaise has become the national anthem.

But, for all that, a ballet is not a filmwhich cannot be modified and may be regarded, should the wish so take one, as no more than a memento of the age. Theatre is a live art. It demands dialogue, including dialogue with the ’original source’. And Alexei Ratmansky (with assistance from dramatist Alexander Belinsky) has entered into this dialogue. The plot has undergone several changes. Instead of one pair of chief characters, there are now two, linked to each other by the emotional ties of the love duet. The original version of this ballet was without a love line. But it was also without the execution of one of the main heroines, forcing her friends to quake in their shoes and giving them firsthand experience of the horrors of revolutionary terror.

It is difficult to list all the dancers participating in the production, there are many leading soloists, including talented soloists from the Bolshoi Ballet’s younger generation of dancers — Anna Antonicheva, Maria Alexandrova, Yekaterina Shipulina, Nina Kaptsova, Natalia Osipova, Vladimir Neporozhny, Andrei Mercuriev, Denis Savin, Ivan Vasiliev and many others. One of the interpreters of the role of Queen Marie Antoinette (there are three in all) is people’s artist of the Soviet Union, today teacher-repetiteur, Lyudmila Semenyaka.

The first series of premiere performances took place on 3,4, 5 (morning and evening) and 6 July.
The second was on 15, 16 and 17 October.