Last year, I saw the Royal Ballet perform Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. I liked it. It was pretty. But I was unconvinced. It didn’t seem to me to have all that much to it. I missed the depth of character you get from prose and poetry. Words matter to me, especially if something is meant to have a plot. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go with the same friends to see the Russian company, the Bolshoi Ballet, perform The Flames of Paris. I knew it would be beautiful. This is, after all, perhaps the greatest Ballet company in the world. But I was worried I would be disappointed.
I needn’t have worried.
Despite my low levels of Ballet exposure, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was watching something truly remarkable: a group of performers at their very best, doing what they love. Just as with music (an area I am much more familiar with), a dancer enjoying themselves cannot help but shine through. And when the Bolshoi dance, the whole company shines.
There were several reasons I loved the evening. First and foremost was the sheer quality of the performance. The beauty of the dance, the height of the leaps. The standout was of course the Pas de Deux (I had to look that term up), the large duet between the peasant girl Jeanne, and the revolutionary Philippe, who have fallen in love, and who, near the end Ballets end, become the first couple to be married in the new republic. A Pas de Deux is an excuse to show off, but I can safely say that the dancers – along with everyone in the audience – loved it so much that it did not seem at all overblown. Then there was the small ballet-within-a-ballet, Rinaldo and Armida, which takes place at the court of Louis XVI. It had no bearing on the progression of the plot, but that allowed space for the dancers to enjoy themselves. It was light-hearted fun at its best.
Speaking of the plot, that was perhaps what I struggled most with at my last outing. I came wanting Shakespeare with dancing, and got dancing with a plot drawn from Shakespeare. That, of course, is not a problem The Flames of Paris has. There could be no comparison with the story told in another medium, because the story only exists for Ballet (albeit in two versions – this was the 2007 rewriting of a 1932 Ballet). I did not lament the absence of prose that ‘could ascend the brightest heaven of invention’, nor could I be saddened that characters I knew well were here reduced to shallow reflections. Instead, we were given a simple yet effective story, built around the emotions which come through so clearly in the medium: revolutionary fervour, passion, stoic acceptance of a new world order, exuberant joy. This was aided by a setting we all know – the French revolution, but about which we have few human stories. The Ballet filled that gap at the human level, and did so effectively.
The plot was aided by stunning costumes – who doesn’t want to look like a dashing revolutionary – and a simple staging – just enough to add depth, without distracting from the dancers – though the revolutionaries’ flag could have been bigger.
As for the score, despite dating to 1932, it was rooted in the classical tradition, and was comfortable returning to the baroque for Rinaldo and Armida, as though the court of Louis XIV was itself watching a revival of an earlier masterpiece. The composer, Boris Arafiev, fulfilled his role perfectly, offering music which was a platform for the Ballet, underlining its emotions and themes, without being obtrusive. and was appealing to most people’s tastes. Certainly, I enjoyed it.
As an untrained observer, I could find nothing to criticise, yet as we left, there was at the back of my mind, a cloud. You see, there is one small plot point which gave The Flames of Paris a depth I had not expected. Over the course of the Ballet, Jeanne’s brother, Jerome, also falls in love. Adeline, wins Jerome’s heart by releasing him from prison after he defends his sister’s virtue, but she is only able to do so as she is the daughter of the man who imprisons Jerome, the Marquis de Beauregard. She is an innocent, who saved one of our heroes from an unjust lord, yet that does not redeem her for the sin of being born a daughter of the Ancien Régime. Between the celebratory dances of the revolutionaries, she is sent to the guillotine, leaving the audience with a sense that the revolution has a dark side not seen before, an almost sadistic brutality to their adulation. All to often, the Ballet reminds us, it is not the people who seek revolution that pay the price, nor is it even those they overthrow. It is those unlucky enough to be caught up in the chaos, by dint of accidents of fate. The story is the same, whether it is set in 1789, 1917, or 2011. Somehow we always seem to forget this.