A hard nut to crack

DANCE The Nutcracker Kirov, Coliseum; English National Ballet, RFH
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London is being spoilt this week. On Saturday, there was Sylvie Guillem in William Forsythe and a blonde wig, turning what had been a PE demonstration into high drama. On Tuesday Darcey Bussell charmed as Cinderella and on Wednesday the Kirov Ballet's prima ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova made her British debut in Vainonen's The Nutcracker at the Coliseum. Three of the world's greatest ballet dancers and it's still only Friday.

Asylmuratova's gifts are undiminished since her last visit in 1995. The peculiar charm of her dancing lies partly in the tantalisingly late flowering of every gesture. Her fingers unfold to complete the line at the last possible moment, her dark eyes flashing to add a flourish to the pose. The Boston balletomane and critic HT Parker wrote of one of Pavlova's innumerable farewell performances in 1924, ``her transcendant quality among the dancers of her time is the ability to veil the bravura of technique in the mantle of beauty''. Asylmuratova's artistry is surely of that order. If anything, her technique can be fractionally unsteady, but that didn't prevent me from shivering as I watched or stop the besotted man across the aisle yelling himself hoarse when the vision ended. There were empty seats on Wednesday night: you should have been there.

The Kirov's production was originally devised by Vasily Vainonen in 1934 and the current rose-tinted designs are by the inevitable Simon Virsaladze. Although usually played at the Maryinsky (and elsewhere) as a brisk two- act work, an extra interval has been squeezed in after only 30 minutes, making a far longer evening. This means that the bulk of the transformation scene, in which the toys become lifesized so that Masha can play among them, takes place while we are at the bar. Unlike Birmingham Royal Ballet's sensational stage effects, there is nothing here to match the grandeur and menace of Tchaikovsky.

Asylmuratova remarked in a recent interview that Russian dancers were no longer superior but the Kirov's famous corps de ballet still look superb. They don't sound too good because they seem to have switched to a rather heavy-handed pointe shoe supplier. Mind you, those big blocks were very necessary to Irina Novikova in her agonising sequence of two-footed jumps on pointe in the pretty Chinese dance.

The national dances over, we are ready for the finale. Instead of the grand pas de deux we are used to, this production has Asylmuratova squired by Stanislav Belyaevsky and four other swains who assist her in a series of finger turns and balances on the tips of her modestly blocked toes.

Earlier that afternoon, a far more familiar Nutcracker was being acted out by English National Ballet in its farewell Christmas season at the Royal Festival Hall. Ben Stevenson's production was due to be put outside with the dead Christmas tree last January but was held over for another year so that Sue Blane's designs for the next production could be tailor- made for the flying facilities of the company's new home at the Coliseum.

The old production looks tired, the scenery is scrappy and Wednesday afternoon's Nutcracker, Laurentiu Guinea, would do well to practise his partnering as assiduously as he practised his solos, but the audience was oblivious to all this. Screams and whistles of delight greeted the arrival of the conductor Patrick Flynn and never let up. The terrific thing about an ENB Christmas matinee is that children, however fidgety, are never out of place and don't have to be hushed and apologised for. They aren't there to admire the huge improvement Derek Deane has wrought in the corps de ballet, or the subtle wit of Michael Coleman's grandfather: children see ballet in a completely different way. A sweetly behaved three- year-old, when asked which bit she had enjoyed most, replied unhesitatingly, ``The curtain. It opened and closed all by itself.''

Kirov, London Coliseum to 4 Jan (0171 632 8300). Asylmuratova is scheduled to dance again tonight.

ENB's `Nutcracker' at RFH to 4 Jan (0171 960 4242).

Louise Levene