Q&A with Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet Master in Chief Mikhail Messerer

The Mikhailovsky Ballet of St. Petersburg is breaking onto the international stage and beginning to compete seriously for renown with Russian ballet institutions like the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. The company recently performed its first shows in the United States in New York, dancing Giselle and The Flames of Paris, and will wrap up its American debut tour with The Flames of Paris at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in southern California November 28-30.  While the Mikhailovsky Ballet packs major star power (including Ivan Vasiliev and Leonid Sarafanov), The Flames of Paris itself is a significant draw. The ballet, originally choreographed by Vasily Vaynonen in 1932, has never before been performed in its entirety in the United States. Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet Master in Chief Mikhail Messerer recently restaged Vaynonen’s theatrical depiction of the French Revolution. The enormous undertaking was a labor of love and an expression of Messerer’s personal commitment to the restoration of vanishing ballet repertoire. Messerer spoke with the World Dances about his reasons for restoring this ballet, the challenges of doing so, his impressions of dance in the U.S. and his advice for aspiring dancers.

Why did you feel it was important to restage The Flames of Paris?

The world might not need it, but the world of Russian ballet does need it! It’s very difficult, impossible, to move forward without remembering your past. And unfortunately in Russia, a whole period of choreography has been lost. In other countries people cherish their heritage--Ashton in England, Balanchine in America. In Russia, young people don’t even know who Vasily Vaynonen was. He was one of the better choreographers of the 20th century, up with the greatest names. This was a very important ballet for Russia and marks an important stage of the development of the art.

Also, before every leader of every ballet company there’s always a question of what to stage next. I thought that for us it would be important to stage this ballet and give these interesting parts to our dancers. There are important roles for our principals and for many of our demi soloists and soloists as well. We have a small company by Russian standards. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky have between 300 and 400 dancers. In this ballet, we have about 100 dancers on stage. I want to give good work to all of my dancers, roles that that fit their strengths, and this ballet allows me to do that.

How did you go about restoring this ballet?

I preserved whatever it was possible to preserve of Vaynonen’s original choreography. Unfortunately, a number of sections of the ballet have disappeared completely so it was impossible to restage them as they were. But I was able to recreate parts using television and film shot in the 1950’s that shows a number of scenes from the ballet. They don’t show the ballet completely, but to a stager it’s a great help. You can see most of the actors in the ballet and understand their characteristics. I was taught some of the dances by my teachers at the Bolshoi, who taught me the parts they danced. My teachers at the High College of Performing Arts in Moscow taught me the “freedom dance” from the finale. My mother and uncle [who both danced with the Bolshoi} also danced in the ballet’s first cast when it was brought from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1933, and they taught me a lot about the choreography. I actually saw the ballet in the early 1960’s in Moscow and even danced one of the children’s pars in the ballet as a child. I love this ballet. It’s one of my first and best impressions of the art form. The Nutcracker was the only ballet I saw first, but that was choreographed by Vaynonen as well, so I think I must like him a lot.

But not everything was preserved so I tried to fill it in in the style of Vaynonen. I tried to put myself in his place. How would he do things now if he were to restage tings today?

What are you most proud of about your restaging?

I’m proud that it shows the ballet by Vaynonen and, I hope, what he would do if he were to restage it now. And I think it shows our company in the best possible light.

I think now we [in Russia] have a somewhat better understanding of this period of ballet, whereas it would have been very easy to throw away all the ballets created between the 1930s and 1050s. That would not have been right.

What appeals to you about the era of Soviet choreography?

Vaynonen’s choreography is extremely musical. I could compare him to other greats of that era, including George Balanchine. They all knew how to use syncopation and music. Vaynonen also knew how to use dance actors, to make it important that the dancers aren’t only dancing but also acting their parts on stage. And he created great character dancing. Mind you, he never went abroad. He created the dance of the Basques, the Basque dance, without ever having seen how the Basques dance!

This ballet was a favorite of Stalin’s. He is said to have enjoyed the depiction of class struggle and uprising. In the U.S., the French Revolution is far more likely to be associated with the struggle for democracy. Are you expecting the American audiences to interpret or receive the ballet differently?

I hope so! Every western democracy is based on the ideals that the French Revolution brought to life: equality, fraternity, and liberty. We had a great reception in London and I believe that yes, the American audience will appreciate the ideals of the French revolutionaries and maybe be excited. I do think it’s important, though, to understand very well that oceans of blood were shed by both sides in the French Revolution.

What’s next for you and your company?

I’m going to stage a classical Le Corsaire, another large, 3-act ballet. I’ll be using the traditional choreography after Petipa. 

What advice would you offer to young dancers?

You have to work really hard. I will say that I have seen excellent ballet students in the United States who can grow to be potentially great dancers.