Dance review: The Flames of Paris - Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev boost the Bolshoi's London season


When ex-Bolshoi Ballet stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev dance, stunned gasps rise up from the theatre: a collective “oh” of wonder and delight. Returning for a guest appearance with their former company, Vasiliev and Osipova give the Bolshoi’s London season an astonishing boost, as high and exhilarating as their soaring jumps. They lift everything around them.

A couple on stage and off, Vasiliev and Osipova left the Bolshoi in 2011, before the backstage crises that erupted with an acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. They’re now international dance superstars; Osipova joins The Royal Ballet this autumn. This guest appearance in The Flames of Paris is a reminder of how much the Bolshoi lost when they went.

Alexei Ratmansky’s production is very odd. Created in 2008, it’s based on Vasily Vainonen’s 1932 ballet, which celebrated the French Revolution for a Soviet audience. The original featured bravura dancing, folk-influenced crowd scenes and a love story for young revolutionaries Jeanne and Philippe. Ratmansky keeps some of the setpieces, but adds a counter-revolutionary twist to the plot, with the sympathetic aristocrat Adeline dying by guillotine.

The pacing and storytelling are awkward, with dancers trying to spell out chunks of plot through fervent pointing. Yet The Flames of Paris brings out the best in the Bolshoi, who give the strongest company performance of this London visit. The court divertissement goes on far too long, but Kristina Kretova and Artem Ovcharenko are terrific in it, with beautifully phrased dancing and witty self-awareness. Anastasia Stashkevich is touching as the doomed Adeline.

I stop caring about the ballet’s flaws when Vasiliev and Osipova take to the barricades. Osipova sprints through the mob, spear in hand: her speed and lightness are incredible, but so is her blazing charisma. Falling for Vasiliev’s Philippe, or fearing for Adeline, her reactions are speedy and heartfelt.

Vasiliev’s rocket-powered jumps seem higher than ever. Rising into the air, he whirls like a helicopter, legs swizzling with dazzling, arrow-sharp speed. Leaping even higher, he seems to lie on the air in an easy diagonal, before landing on one knee in a stupendous backbend.

The technique is magnificent, but that’s not the half of it. Osipova and Vasiliev pull the whole ballet into focus through vivid stage presence, dramatic conviction and sheer swagger. They’re as unstoppable as the tide of revolution.