By Ryan Wallace
Bringing top tier ballet and contemporary dance companies from around the world, to the beautiful southern coast of California every year, Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts has always met the high expectations their audience has come to adore. But it’s not always an easy feat. While American audiences have a particular appreciation for classical technique when it comes to dance, ballet finds itself in a constant flux in finding a balance between tradition and modernity for contemporary audiences. And there’s a known risk to starting a season with a traditional ballet. However, this year by starting their 2014-2015 season with a gorgeous ballet, mixing Parisian chic and Russian technique, the Segerstrom set expectations and the stage ablaze with new life, and a newfound love of ballet.
Debuting a Soviet period ballet, The Flames of Paris, last weekend Nov. 28, the three day event filled with matinees and evening performances inspired crowds of dance enthusiasts to see what this year would have in store for the Segerstrom. And while it may not have been one of the classics everyone expected, the ballet was a perfect start to the season.
Subtly elegant, with boastful technique, The Flames of Paris brought by the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St. Petersburg was perfectly executed from the scenery to the seams. Blending simplicity with elegant detailing, and careful attention to the original score, Mikhailovsky Ballet choreographer-in-chief Mikhail Messerer was able to evoke significant emotion in the movement of the piece and closely convey a modern take on the original folk dance created for The Flames of Paris.
“All ballet company directors face the question of what to put on in future seasons—and there are not that many ballets from which to choose from. Our perform helps to cement, on the stage, a performance culture which has almost disappeared: the dancers had to demonstrate their mastery not only of classical dance, but also of character dance, as well as their consummate acting skills. The Flames of Paris provides rich material to work with in this respect” Messerer says. “What is important [moreover] is the feeling of Flames of Paris. As a youth I saw it many times, so I’m not just familiar with the letter, but I also know the spirit.”
Originally created by ballet master choreographer Vasily Vaynonen during Russia’s Soviet period, the ballet evokes themes common to French, Russian, and United States history, as the protagonists in the ballet are seeking freedom from a monarchy that remains separate from the people. Originally written to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the production took general themes from French history and created a story wherein the people and the protagonist (played by principal dancer Ivan Vasiliev) became the collective hero of the tale.
Not personally familiar with traditional French forms of dance, as his education and worldly experiences remained confined to that of Russia, Vaynonen developed a unique folkloric form of dance with few historical references he collected from memoirs and museum exhibits available at the time. Hoping to continue in that tradition, while also instilling a few modern ballet numbers and technique, Messerer altered the choreography by roughly 50%, and an equal amount of change was made to the score, to better heighten the feeling of The Flames of Paris and to better translate to more contemporary audiences.
“The Flames of Paris is a ballet that holds up remarkably well. It was beautifully crafted by director Sergey Radlov, and the man responsible for the original choreography, Vasily Vaynonen, was a ballet master of rare talent” Messerer says. “In my opinion, Vaynonen ranks alongside Balanchine as one of the outstanding figures of 20th-century ballet. Vaynonen created a great deal of superb choreography, replete with artistic beauty and thought, and we are likewise indebted to him for the endurance of the idea of ‘form’—so important in ballet.”
“Vaynonen was not able to travel abroad, and he was not able to see any real folk dance” Messerer adds. “He was able to see two videos at museums, which would not have been enough for most, but he was a genius prodigy.”
“Out of only these, he was able to create not only a folk dance of his own, but a masterpiece.”
The original libretto was written by playwright Nikolay Volkov and composer Boris Asafiev developed a score to accompany Vaynonen’s fantastical vision for what the French-inspired ballet would be to the audience of Soviet Russia. And though it was written over eight decades ago, the feeling and the movement continue to stay true to Vaynonen’s vision. Balance between violins and brass reveal exquisite orchestration of the piece, and as a testament to Messerer, the choreography exhibits a modern turn towards the appreciation of truly masculine ballerinos and a balance between traditional ballet technique and folk group dance.
The costumery and set design also add a distinct form of depth to The Flames of Paris, and a beautifully attention to detail that’s noted in every seamless piece. Building layers in between the background and the foreground, set designers for the Segerstrom are able to take a 1-dimensional piece, such as a tree, and build a forest in front of the eyes of the audience. Shifting windows and adding dimensional corners to the same sets in later scenes offers viewers different vantage points from which to observe the conflict within the ballet, and it’s undoubtedly a set worthy of regal appeal. Likewise, the costumes, especially those of the royal court, are all beautifully tailored and unique in slight variations of details adorning the pieces. Perfectly fit bodices and structural gowns imbued regality, while costumes in colors of red, white and blue evoked the spirit of the French rebellion.
“When bringing this production to life, it was necessary to think about the dimensions of the stage, and about the way in which modern-day audiences view the onstage action” Messerer says. “For example, I considered it essential to truncate one particular scene. Throughout our preparations for the premiere I asked myself at every stage of rehearsals, ‘How would Vaynonen stage this scene if he were around today?’ And [of course] the dynamics of the action needed to suit the audience of today—not too quick and not too long.”
And while other ballets may have been successful in kicking off the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 2014-2015 dance season, Messerer’s The Flames of Paris had a unique appeal in its sense of community. Unlike other ballets, The Flames of Paris evokes the feeling that every member of the company plays a significant part of the piece, no matter how large or small their role, and that the audience does not stand apart from the stage, but rather that they share a role in the community setting. With a contemporary twist and technical elegance, The Flames of Paris sparked the perfect start to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ dance season, which will welcome other ballet companies to Costa Mesa this year in what is expected to be one of the greatest seasons in Segerstrom history.
But what was the peak of the performance, one might ask? In spite of sharing the stage with some of the best principal dancers in Russia, one little girl that appeared to be the age of only 3 or 4 stole the show! Last minute, Mikhailovsky Ballet directors decided to add Costa Mesa community members and dance enthusiasts into the crowd of the French folk dance scenes. And while all of the additions helped round out the actual appearance of the community Messerer and Vaynonen tried to recreate, the joy and movement of the one tiny dancer helped the company celebrate a piece devoted to freedom and the ties that keep communities together.