Peter the Great wished for European refinement when he imported French ballet as a symbol of culture, order, and restraint, but what emerged from the mixing of rough Russian asceticism with French elegance altered the course of the art. Though the 1932 ballet The Flames of Paris, performed by the Mikhailovsky Ballet in their West Coast debut at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, claims to be a narrative of the French Revolution (created, incidentally, to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution), the story that unfolds onstage is also one of the origins of pyrotechnics of concert dance. The thesis of this ballet, if there is one, is simply this: Russian folk dance made ballet awesome.
The ballet unfolds in three short acts utterly lacking in subtlety. In the first scene, rustic Gaspar and his children, already symbolically clad in the colors of the Revolution, are beaten by an evil Marquis for gathering twigs on his estate, shortly before a band of revolutionaries gallop onto the scene in time for their leader, Philippe (the iron-legged Ivan Vasiliev), to pick up the sticks, brandish a flag, and kiss Gaspar’s daughter, Jeanne (Oksana Bondareva): vive la revolution! Meanwhile back at the palace, a gaggle of overdressed French courtiers are doing as courtiers do: minuets and sarabandes in polite formation while balancing a quivering dollop of platinum blonde pompadoured hair above dresses roughly the size of yachts. The courtly entertainment consists of a spritely Cupid (Veronika Ignatyeva) leading an enactment of some kind of love narrative between actors Diana Mireille (Irina Perren) and Antoine Mistral (Victor Lebedev), who give the impression of dainty precision with buoyant jumps and serene turns despite their top heavy outfits with double-puffed sleeves and massive whipped cream bustles. It is eminently clear that if anything lost the aristocrats this war, it was their insistence on flammable, aerodynamically unsound attire, as well as their limp wrists, effetely wobbling at the ends of their powdered arms.
Act II brings the dancing that gives the ballet its name: amid a rumbling mass in multifarious colors stuffed into every corner of a crowded street scene, strong fists and open palms, clog dances, heel drills, legs flashing out like knives, and stunning displays of virtuosity beneath the blazing hot sky of revolution. The dances have a necessary roughness, and Vasiliev as the emblem of the revolution is as fierce as they come. He does not float; he defies gravity as a lion leaps, mane flying, staunchly muscled, and the shock of his jump is less the apex of the arc as the implausible last revolution of each tour he makes heartstoppingly close to the ground before his surefooted landings. Flags wave, and fiery-eyed Teresa (Mariam Ugrekhelidze) leads a pack of Basques in a defiant gypsy stomp—she’s the soldier that has to die in this ballet, but every dancer in the scene is do-or-die, and by the way, there are revolutions galore: fouettés with flags and tours with swords and revoltades and sauts de basque and jumps that lack names and flout description, including one that brings Vasiliev seemingly parallel to the stage above the heads of the assembled masses. Every trick has to be done at least twice because the first sight honestly can’t be believed.
The revolution won by the physical brilliance of its participants is further celebrated in Act III, which parades Perren out in a pas de deux with Marat Shemiunov that seems to honor Russia’s world domination in ice dancing: overhead press lifts with one arm while spinning, flying fish catches, flashy partnered turns—all with flag. Two men dressed in tennis whites duet, either representing Fraternité or marking the Tennis Court Oath—does it matter? And then the wedding duet: you’ve probably watched that video of Natalia Osipova with Vasiliev (if not, do yourself a favor)—all I have to say is, YES.
Mikhailovsky Ballet presents The Flames of Paris Nov. 28-30 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets start at $29; call (714) 556-2787.