JACOBIN FICTION CONVENTION MEETING 12: THE FLAMES OF PARIS (1932/2008)
1. The Introduction
Hello, Citizens, and welcome to the 12th meeting of the Jacobin Fiction Convention!
Okay, as you might have noticed, I put two dates in the headline on purpose, because the latter marks the premier of the revised ballet while the former is the year of the premier of the original ballet. No worries, I’ll talk about both to the best of my ability.
You might also have noticed that I’m quite excited about this review. Because it’s true! I’ve seen this ballet during my last year of high school with my mom so it’s really nostalgic and I’ve been meaning to discuss this ballet for a while now. Gotta bring something from my own country to the table too!
Anyway, my mom and I saw it at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow but, if there are no performances going on in your area (or if you have quarantine restrictions), don’t worry about it. I did some digging and found a video on YouTube.
I know it doesn’t have the best quality, but that was the only thing I could find, so here:
Okay, now you (hopefully) have an opportunity to watch the performance too, Citizens.
Before we proceed, let me state once again that this time I won’t tackle Thermidorian propaganda at all. The Eastern Bloc didn’t really buy into it anyway and even the new version doesn’t have anything obvious in that department.
Instead, we’ll look at a different perspective, the propaganda that comes with the positive depiction of the Revolution and the differences between the original libretto and the new one.
Ready? Good. Let us begin!
2. The Story
To sum up, in both versions everything takes place in Marseille (at first) and then in Paris. The time is the beginning of the French Revolution, when the action is only beginning to pick up.
The original version states the year as 1791; the new one doesn’t but I assume that those are still the early years of the Revolution.
The story of the revised version, while extremely similar to the original, combines the revolution with deeply personal stories of two regular people from the Third Estate - siblings Jeanne and Jérôme, both of whom become active participants in the French Revolution as the story progresses.
Personally, I like the idea of starting the story somewhere other than Paris and the idea of featuring just regular commoners as protagonists. Not everyone’s name is going to end up in history records so it’s always nice to focus on ordinary people in such events.
This decision also provides a nice contrast with Versailles, also shown in the first act. It really drives home the fact that the privileged people and everyone else lived in different worlds during the Ancien Regime.
I also like the fact that, unlike the previous version with 4 acts, the modern ballet only has 2 acts, as it doesn’t give the audience time to get bored and gets straight to the point with the action, so there’s actually balance in action and filler.
This ballet also contains one of those rare romantic subplots that I was invested in, but more on that later.
And, finally, we have a story that doesn’t slander our Revolution! Like I said before, the new libretto makes the story a bit more objective and doesn’t shy away from the injustice that could take place at the time, but both versions present the Revolution in a really positive light, which is something that’s worth appreciating!
Honestly, I tried to think of complaints and maybe my only grievance was the fact that the ballet scene at the royal palace drags on a bit, but it’s not really a serious issue.
Side note: In that scene, popular actors, Antoine Mistral and Mireille de Poitiers, perform a scene from a ballet called “Rinaldo and Armida”. I don’t think it actually exists but I found an opera called “Armida” that features characters with those names. Just a fun fact.
Anyway, I won’t say much else about the story because I’d be gushing about it all day, so let’s move on.
3. The Characters
Let me say this. I. Love. Jeanne. She is a “cool action girl” type of character who not only participates in the storming of the palace, but also waves the banner.
There’s a scene where she waves the new tricolor flag while all the action is happening.
That said, she isn’t exactly an “Amazon who needs no man” ™️ either. In fact, she does have a pretty sweet and heartwarming love story with a fellow revolutionary going on, which is awesome. Being an action girl and having a love interest at the same time is possible, something I’d like some people to realize.
Anyway, next we have Jérôme. He is a brave and sweet cinnamon roll who sticks up for his sister when the local marquis gets all creepy and tries to hit on her. Jérôme is beaten up and imprisoned for this, but I still love the fact that he showed no fear in that scene.
He is also a revolutionary and also has a sweet love story with the daughter of the aforementioned marquis, Adeline (more on her later). He does his best to fight for what’s right but also can be tender, so during the performance he feels like a person and not some generic macho.
Adeline, Jérôme’s love interest and the daughter of the wicked handsy marquis, is a character who only exists in the revised version (in the original one the marquis had an equally handsy and corrupt son) but this makes the new libretto all the more nuanced, at least in my opinion.
She helps Jérôme escape from her father’s dungeon, falls in love with him and joins the revolution as a supporter, so I think adding her to the story is an excellent creative choice.
Not all aristocrats were assholes and some were indeed revolutionaries so it wouldn’t be inaccurate to have such a character.
Adeline’s arc also illustrates the darker side of the Revolution. See, after the marquis is executed (serves him right), Adeline’s nanny decides to avenge him and exposes Adeline’s identity, which leads to her execution.
Now, some people might take it as Thermidorian propaganda and the perpetuation of the old “the revolutionaries wanted to kill all nobles” schtick, but I doubt that this is the point.
Remember what the marquis himself was like? He would’ve been executed regardless of social standing for multiple acts of perversion and cruelty. There’s no way it was his first time.
Of course, Adeline is innocent, but, given the context, I can actually buy that an unfair execution could take place in her case. It illustrates how FRev wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows too, which is good as our community doesn’t condone absolutely everything about it either.
The original version doesn’t have Adeline and her arc, or any heroic nobles for that matter. Understandable given the context, but it does give off the impression that FRev in that libretto was glorified a bit too much, so I’m glad Adeline was added.
Well, what about historical figures? Interestingly enough, most prominent historical figures are absent from the action. The monarchs are there, but they only show up briefly and most people in the story are original characters.
But the revised version actually gives us a cameo of a third historical figure - David. Yes, the painter. Basically, he is there sketching while our main characters are dancing and celebrating the successful storming of Versailles so it’s just a cameo.
Okay, now let’s look at choreography.
4. The Choreography
Oh. My. Supreme. Being. The choreography is something else!
Aside from classical ballet, we get a nice dash of folk dancing mixed with ballet, and wonderful choreography of action scenes as well.
My favorite part, however, was when Jeanne was waving that banner while the background was fire red. I won’t be exaggerating when I say that, while watching that for the first time, I got pumped and had goosebumps all over my body.
That scene really does a great job of making the audience just jump onto the scene and waving banners of their own, joining the Revolution alongside the main characters.
Excellent job here.
5. The Music
The music does a great job of pumping up the audience too. And there’s also a bonus for us, the Revolutionaries, in the form of three revolutionary songs that were incorporated into the score.
I’m not making this up. This ballet uses music from La Marseillaise, La Carmagnole and Ça ira, all of which are real revolutionary songs! I’m really glad that the composers did it and I truly appreciate the fact that the creators of this new version clearly did their homework and included real songs from that era.
6. The Setting
I really love the care and the research that clearly went into the decorations on the stage and the costumes of the characters, especially the revolutionaries, most of whom wear red bonnets, tricolor cockades and tricolor clothes.
The nobles also have fairly accurate dresses here, at least as accurate as the designers can afford to be when it’s necessary to have the actors dance on the stage too, so I’m actually pretty lenient about potential inaccuracies. Besides, who cares about those corrupt nobles anyway, am I right, Citizens?
7. The Conclusion
All in all, while shorter and a bit more objective than the original, this revised ballet only profits from the creative choices and, while preserving the overall positive impression of the French Revolution, shows it in a more nuanced version.
I definitely recommend this to you, dear Citizens, even if you don’t like ballet all that much. After all, it’s not every day our Revolution gets a positive portrayal in the media, so I strongly believe that rare gems such as this one need to be promoted and talked about more in our community.
It’s a good thing that the original version took the stage by storm and the new one seems to be quite popular too (in the Bolshoi Theater, for example, a rerun is apparently due in May), both in Russia and abroad (at least whenever there are shows abroad). However, it won’t hurt to promote something like this just a little more, at least in my opinion.
With that, let us finish the 12th meeting of the Jacobin Fiction Convention. Stay tuned because updates are coming soon.
See you soon, Citizens!
- Citizen Green Pixel
What's your opinion on Alexandra Khiteeva ? Maria Bulanova ? and Anastasia Sminorva ? are they good ? i think maria khoreva has flawless technique but she's lacking depth in her dance. Thank you!
Let’s get one thing straight, they’re all dancing soloist and/ or principal roles at one of the best ballet theaters in the world, they’re ridiculously good but all have different strengths. ￼￼
I personally am a admirer of Sasha Khiteeva, she reminds me of Evgenia Obratzsova but with better proportions for this era of ballet. Her dancing is soft and whimsical with really detailed epaulment. I hope she’s going to grow into a truly beautiful soubrette, I dream of seeing her Aurora but I hope she gets some more featured roles this season.
Maria Bulanova is truly an exceptional case, she failed out of VBA early on and was able to train hard at a smaller school and fight her way back in. She only had about 3 years of VBA education and it shows in her dancing. She is an exceptional, floaty turner with a dynamic stage presence but you can clearly see her technical and stylistic differences from those who has a longer VBA education. The management has done a great job of pinpointing her strengths in dramatic roles as well.
Anastasia Smirnova is electric, with powerful legs and an absolutely massive jump and my personal favorite on this list. First of all I have to say that I’m massively jealous of her, to spend your first year in a company with debuting massive roles with people like Sarafanov and Vasiliev. She is so strong and so self assured in her dancing, even when that’s huge principal roles- that’s rare for a new graduate. I find her absolutely electric onstage, especially in parts that allow her to show off that gorgeous jump. The Kitri and Laurencia at Mikhailovksy were energetic, emotional and technically solid and I hope that positive trajectory continues at MT.
Khoreva is without a doubt the most prolific graduate to come out of VBA in probably 20 years. There hasn’t been a dancer who joined the company with this much hype since Vishneva. Her potential is by far the highest of the girls on this list. While she’s unlikely to become my favorite ballerina, there are some roles that I think she will become an exceptional interpreter of, Raymonda, Diamonds and Aurora to name a few. I also think one day she will be a magnificent Swan. In my opinion, she has two main ‘weaknesses’ lack of power and lack of emotional expression. The criticisms of her dramatic skills or lack thereof are numerous but also very valid. However, I do believe that this is the more likely weakness to be improved with time. She is an absolutely stunning technician with luxurious extensions and precisely executed transitions but I don’t find her to be a dynamic mover and while her moves are beautiful and precise, they often lack force. Compared to how effortless the rest of her technique is, her jumps look laborious and taxing. Her dancing is pure and refined academicism but I wonder how much she will be able to stretch herself. Later, once she has made a dent with the classics, I predict there will be questions about her range.