The Soviet Union of the 1930s was certainly not an easy time or place in which to live, but it did produce a fantastic new genre of dance, the dramaballet (or choreo-drama), which has not only stood the test of time, but is enjoying something of a Renaissance in the ballet world. In past years this type of ballet has been dismissed, particularly in the immediate post-Cold War period, as merely a box-ticking exercise in socialist realism. However, many of these ballets have never stopped engaging and exciting both dancers and audiences, and often provide some of the most psychologically interesting characters on the ballet stage. Those, such as The Flames of Paris, that were created by the dream-team of choreographer Vasily Vainonen and composer Boris Asafyev have aged especially well. Dramaballets also tend towards Busby Berkeley-like crowd scenes, exploring historically interesting moments, and these feature prominently in The Flames of Paris, set in the midst of the French Revolution.

The Flames of Paris
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

The Hungarian National Ballet dances Michael Messerer’s updated (slightly shortened) version of the Vainonen classic. Staying close to the original production, which both Messerer’s parents starred in at the Bolshoi in the 1930s, it eliminates the changes that appear in Alexei Ratmansky's version created for the Bolshoi in 2008, focusing instead on the grandeur, pageantry and technical virtuosity that is such an exciting part of this genre. Few in the ballet world are unfamiliar with the pas de deux danced in the final scene by Jeanne and Philippe, danced here by Tatiana Melnik and Gergely Leblanc; joyful Marseillais revolutionaries who celebrate the taking of the Tuileries Palace with a bravado pas de deux that appears to decline the adagio portion of the grand pas de deux both because it is too aristocratic for their tastes, and because they are simply having too much fun showing off for their friends to slow down!

Tatiana Melnik and Gergely Leblanc
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Leblanc, a graduate of both the Royal Ballet School and the Hungarian State Ballet School, was excellent in his role, easily attacking one virtuosic step after another with excellence and verve. Melnik, a graduate of the Perm Choreographic School and former leading dancer of the Stanislavsky Theatre, was charming, albeit more controlled in her portrayal. A small downside of the shortened version is that we have a limited opportunity to get to really know our leading characters, making this particular ballet less about the psychological power of the individual and more about the passionate fight for political and social freedom. The revolution portrayed here is explored in a simple, and almost innocent fashion; in this, more than anything else, we see the legacy of socialist realism.

In the ballroom of the Tuileries, a charming allegoric ballet is shown, not unlike entertainments that actually did appear in the pre-Revolutionary French court. Here, Yourim Lee danced a brilliant Amor, Anna Krupp was lovely as a delicate Mireille de Poitiers, Gergő Ármin Balázsi was gallant as her partner, Antoine Mistral. Though intended to be so technical and twee as to represent effectively the insipid upper class (in contrast to the noble passion of the character dances taken by the revolutionaries), the Hungarian National Ballet’s dancers are simply so good that this was one of the loveliest parts in a beautiful evening at the ballet. A divertissement of a different flavour appears in the last act, the celebration in the streets of Paris, featuring the sort of exciting partnering that so defined the Soviet era.

Anna Krupp and Iurii Kekalo
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

I last saw a full production by the Hungarian National Ballet in their exquisite State Opera House in 2005, and was impressed. Now, I am even more taken with this exciting company, one which truly seems to have blended the best of the Eastern European traditions with a willingness to hire the best dancers from around the globe. The level of technique, across the board, is top-notch, and the production value is lush and rich, making one want to enter the computer screen and hurry back to the theatre as soon as it is possible. For those who prefer not to see any visual reminders of today’s world on the ballet stage, it should be noted that the Hungarian National Ballet dancers are allowed to perform onstage exactly as they would pre-pandemic, so this is an excellent option for those seeking a real escape from the difficulties in our world today. Watching it myself, I felt a kinship with the Soviet citizens who would have seen the original, seeking something simple, noble and good as an escape from the difficulties of the present day. The Flames of Paris certainly works as well now as it did then.

This performance was reviewed from the Hungarian State Opera's live video stream