Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov in 'Giselle, ou Les Wilis'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov in
‘Giselle, ou Les Wilis’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

November 11, 2014: Giselle, ou Les Wilis
November 14, 2014:
The Flames of Paris

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

Jerry Hochman

For its premiere New York engagement, Mikhailovsky Ballet is presenting four different programs during its two-week run at the David H. Koch Theater. The company has a substantial history. It’s been in existence since the early 1930s, and has a wide-ranging repertoire. But it is less familiar than Russia’s major companies, the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi, and its attraction, at least to most balletgoers in New York who don’t speak Russian, is less the company as a whole than the presence of its two stars: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. For Ms. Osipova, and to a slightly lesser extent Mr. Vasiliev, this is the first leg in a series of appearances in New York that will continue with, as presently scheduled, American Ballet Theatre in the spring and an independent program that they headline in the summer. For Osipova/Vasiliev fans, the time to start saving pennies is now.

There was nothing new in the respective performances of Ms. Osipova as Giselle on opening night, and Mr. Vasiliev as Philippe, the male lead in “The Flames of Paris”, on Friday. Those who love to see them were not disappointed; their performances were largely emblematic of their work in other performances to date. But the program also provided other dancers in the Mikhailovsky an opportunity to show themselves off, and the company itself an opportunity to introduce itself.

I don’t know if this Mikhailovsky version of “Giselle”, staged by Nikita Dolgushin, is a more authentic reproduction of the original than others (although what’s ‘authentic’, in the case of stagings of classic ballets, is a relative term), but authenticity alone is an overrated, and frequently abused measure. My preference is that a classic breathe with a contemporary sensibility. The Mikhailovsky’s “Giselle” – particularly Act I – looks preserved in aspic.

“Giselle” is a Romantic ballet, perhaps the finest Romantic ballet. But the village scene in the first act, at least based on Western productions (which, admittedly, may have tinkered with the ‘original’), is not danced in the same Romantic style as Act II. But here, the corps work in Act I was similar to the corps work in Act II, just with different costumes and facial appearance. There was no verisimilitude; there was nothing natural about it (other than the beautiful set by Vyacheslav Okunev). This was obviously intentional, but it was very difficult to watch. The corps dancers may have done what corps dancers in the 19th century did (and it was certainly what they were programmed to do here – all the corps work looked highly regimented; no head angle or hand position different from another), but frieze-posing, saluting some highlighted soloist en masse (each dancer with the same gesture – one arm raised in unison), and turning their collective backs on the action when the going gets rough, quickly becomes tiring. It may be museum quality, but it belongs more in a museum than on a contemporary stage.

This stodgy framework allows the principals to stand out, although they would have anyway in a more animated production. But even here, in Act I, at least until the end of the act, they looked more restrained than usual. Ms. Osipova was fine as Giselle, but her patented orbiting jumps seemed much more earth-bound than they did when she danced in ABT’s production. Indeed, because the ABT version has a contemporary feel and is less stylistically restrained, she looked much less animated here than she did when dancing the role with them.

Natalia Osipova as Giselle. Photo © Costas Cacaroukas

Natalia Osipova as Giselle.
Photo © Costas Cacaroukas

Osipova’s Albrecht (here simply identified as ‘Count’), Leonid Sarafanov (whom I understand made a strong impression when he last appeared in New York with the Mariinsky, with which he was a principal from 2002-2010) was disappointing. With his short cropped hair and boyish face, he looked effeminate and prissy. Perhaps this is the style Mikhailovsky wanted: Hilarion (here called ‘Gamekeeper’), played by Vladimir Tsal, instead of appearing brutish, thuggish, or just plain dumb, was portrayed as a schlimazel. Both Sarafanov and Tsal came somewhat to life at the end of the act, after Giselle dies, but between the corps’ artificial posing and these characters’ artificially feeble characterizations (again, both of which may have been programmed into the production), the damage was done. Even the elimination (or, looked at another way, the failure to incorporate) Giselle’s mother’s fully animated descriptive rendering of ‘seeing’ what might happen to her daughter if she strains her heart by continuing to dance, all while the corps turns away, contributes to the act’s low level of emotional interest. My recollection is that in the ABT production of “Giselle” that I first saw, staged by David Blair, Giselle’s mother acted – or didn’t act – similarly; it was only in subsequent ABT productions that the mother’s detailed foreshadowing was incorporated.

But Act I wasn’t completely devoid of interest. The peasant pas de deux, though in a different location in the act from where I’m accustomed to seeing it (and less naturally incorporated into the action for that reason), was nicely danced by Veronika Ignatyeva, a member of the corps, and Andrey Yakhnyuk, a First Soloist. Mr. Yakhnyuk was technically immaculate, with feet that gripped the stage floor like talons, and Ms. Ignatyeva, tiny and feather-light, even broke into an occasional smile. The highlight, however, was the staging following Giselle’s death. Albrecht tries to run away, but at each pathway he’s blocked by approaching nobility. With no alternative, he has to stick around a bit longer for some additional histrionics. This escape attempt provides a different, and intellectually interesting, interpretation of Albrecht’s character, and it also is a neat additional visual foreshadowing of Act II, where the Wilis block Hilarion and Albrecht’s attempts to escape.

With the exception of some unnecessary scenic quirkiness (where the Wilis emerge from, and return to, the woods, camouflaged by trees that move up and down and up and down as if to repeatedly remind the audience that one wouldn’t really be able to see the ethereal beings unless one could see through the trees), Act II was relatively standard and in some respects superior to others.

Myrta, here called ‘Queen of the Wilis’, was portrayed by Ekaterina Borchenko with somewhat less iciness and viciousness than I’ve seen elsewhere, but was danced exquisitely. A company member since 2008, she has remarkable strength coupled with equally remarkable finesse. The corps work was superb, and the patterning differences made sense. These were not just pretty pictures – the corps in this production is an active participant in the ensnarement process, circling Hilarion to prevent his escape at one point, and barring Albrecht from leaping offstage after Giselle at another. Why, in ABT’s and other productions, when Giselle dances into the wings downstage right and Albrecht thereupon leaps after her, doesn’t he take the opportunity to just disappear into the woods? The audience is supposed to assume, if it thinks about this at all, that the supposedly omnipresent Wilis will only drag him back. But this Mikhailovsky production avoids such intellectual gymnastics.

Ms. Osipova’s Giselle in this act, again, was less dramatically portrayed than I’ve seen from her previously, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and, except for not looking quite as ethereal as others (Diana Vishneva, for example), was very well done. Mr. Sarafanov demonstrated extraordinarily clean technique, and his final series of entrechats were executed perfectly, with eye-opening ballon.

Ivan Vasiliev (centre) with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in 'The Flames of Paris'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Ivan Vasiliev (centre) with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in ‘The Flames of Paris’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

The Mikhailovsky’s “The Flames of Paris” is espresso to the chamomile tea of its “Giselle”. The complete ballet (as opposed to the last act pas de deux) is rarely seen here, so its presentation was a treat. And it’s a treat for another reason as well – it includes some excellent dancing (as well as more than the usual amount of pyrotechnics), shows off the company well, and is lots of fun to watch.

With choreography by Vasily Vaynonen and music by Boris Asafiev, the ballet premiered in Leningrad in November, 1932, at the Kirov (Mariinsky)Theater, and moved seven months later to the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Its real raison d’etre, the 15th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917, is transparent even if the point weren’t conceded in Mikhailovsky’s program notes. Seeing the French revolutionary flag carried onstage emblazoned with words in Cyrillic rather than French, seals the deal. But a transparently self-congratulatory motivation isn’t a reason to condemn “The Flames of Paris” as merely artistic propaganda. It’s not a great ballet, but
it’s well worth seeing.

The story is not unusual for this genre. The nobles are the bad guys; the peasants are the good guys.

As modified from the original libretto, the story begins as the dastardly Marquis de Beauregard and his minions surprise a father and his children who are gathering firewood on the Marquis’s property. Jeanne comes to her father’s aid, but the Marquis brushes her aside. If the Marquis had a mustache, he’d twirl it. Hearing the Marseillaise in the distance, the cowardly Marquis retreats to the safety of his castle. Led by the dashing Philippe, the Marseilles arrive, and recruit the family to the Revolution.

At a ball at King Louis XVI’s palace (which includes a troupe of dancers retained to entertain the starched nobles), the dastardly Marquis convinces the King to seek the help of the friendly next-door Prussian army to crush the rowdy rebels. But the troupe’s danseur, Antoine Mistral, discovers the plan, and thereupon is promptly killed by that dastardly Marquis. Is there no end to his villainy? The troupe’s lead female dancer, Diana Mireille, finds Mistral dead, and, to quote the program notes, “knows what she must do” (run off and join the Revolution, of course).

'The Flames of Paris'.  Photo © Stas Levshin

‘The Flames of Paris’.
Photo © Stas Levshin

Meanwhile, back in Paris, the assembled rebels dance their local folk dances as if auditioning for a French version of the Moiseyev. The disparate throng is ignited by Teresa, a Basque, firebrand, who might have been the Gypsy Girl in “Don Quixote” in a previous life. Soon Diana arrives with news of the monarchy’s alliance with Prussia, prompting The People, led by the dashing Philippe, to storm the Tuileries, the King’s palace in Paris. In the ensuing fight, the dastardly Marquis is killed, but Teresa is shot dead, a martyr for the Revolution. In the final Act, the crowd celebrates the victory and the wedding of Aurora and Prince Desire, I mean Kitri and Basil, I mean Jeanne and the dashing Philippe complete with divertissements and a pas de deux that might have been hijacked from “Le Corsaire”.

It all sounds somewhat cartoonish. But it’s great fun, and there’s some really fine dancing. The Act I, Scene 2 ‘intermezzo’, danced by Irina Perren (Diana), Mr. Sarafanov (Mistral), Ms. Ignatyeva (as an Amour-ish ‘Cupid’), and unidentified corps dancers, was beautifully executed by all. Ms. Perren’s technically dazzling display of strength and artistry was particularly memorable. Mariam Ugrekhalidze’s passionate Teresa lit up the stage like a lightning bolt.

Oksana Bondareva (Jeanne) was equally spectacular in her dancing, with a series of fouettés (doubles; triples) interspersed with relevé turns a la seconde. In her fouetté sequence in Act II, Scene 1, it looked at first like she was drifting excessively – until it became clear that she was executing her steps and patterning circularly concurrently. That she could hold her own with Mr. Vasiliev (Philippe), who pulled out a fusillade of tricks for the occasion, speaks volumes. Ms. Bondareva, who has danced with the Mikhailovsky since 2009, recently joined the Mariinsky Ballet and is appearing with the Mikhailovsky now as a guest principal.

Oksana Bondareva in 'The Flames of Paris'.  Photo © Stas Levshin

Oksana Bondareva and the Mikhailovsky Ballet in ‘The Flames of Paris’.
Photo © Stas Levshin

Mr. Vasiliev was a revolutionary bull in a French china shop; he exploded through everything with astonishing acrobatic creativity. But he seemed to know that this was what the audience came to see – in the concluding pas de deux, before his solo, as he was walking to position upstage, I saw him flex his muscles while flashing a knowing grin to anyone with binoculars capable of seeing it. And I think he even winked – unless I just imagined that.

Other performances that should not be overlooked were in the Act III divertissements: Valeria Zapasnikova, Svetlana Bednenko, and Anastasia Soboleva performed effortlessly and engagingly as the ‘Equality’ trio; Mr. Yakhnyuk and Victor Lebedev were energized mirror images in the ‘Fraternity’ duo; and in ‘Freedom,’ a fearless Ms. Perren and supersized Marat Shemiunov (a blond haired tree trunk) displayed a series of one-armed overhead lifts that looked breathtakingly dangerous but were executed with the ho hum ease and facility of an Olympic weightlifter clean-jerking a toothpick. One wonders if Mr. Shemiunov might be available for some ABT gigs.

Finally, credit must be given to the sets and costumes by Vladimir Dmitriev, which were both lovely and magnificent, the fiery conducting by Pavel Bubelnikov, and the ‘revised choreography’ and staging by Mikhailovsky’s Ballet Master in Chief, Mikhail Messerer.

“The Flames of Paris” doesn’t have the gripping emotional power of “Les Miserables”, which at times it visually resembles (cross-pollinated with a touch of Cirque du Soleil), and it’s somewhat ironic that it owes a huge debt to Petipa, the Imperial choreographer, but it should be seen at least once. As should the Mikhailovsky Ballet.