Ballet THE FOUNTAIN OF BAKHCHISARAI/ KIROV BALLET London Coliseum, London

Worry beads in one hand, hookah in the other, lovestruck Khan Guirei sits staring into the distance. Wracked with desire for Maria, the fair-skinned Polish beauty - kidnapped by the Tartar chieftain during his last bloody battle and now imprisoned in his harem at Bakhchisarai (ancient seat of the Khanate Crimea) - Guirei takes no interest in the parade of women who are unceremoniously shoved under his nose by a pair of eunuchs.

None of them can tempt him; not even the orphan Zarema, until now his firm favourite and, as we are about to witness, a woman disinclined to take rejection lying down. While Zarema craves Guirei's love, Maria cowers from it and, as the prologue to The Fountain of Bakhchisarai indicates, this is a story that can only end in tears.

First performed in 1934, Fountain was a collaborative venture between the choreographer Rostislav Zakharov, the dramatist Nikolai Volkov and the composer Boris Assafiev whose score, full of harsh, almost comically strident passages alternating with stretches of gooey lyricism, was inspired by Pushkin's poem of 1824. Fountain was Zakharov's debut work, and a forerunner of the trend towards psychological realism, the use of literary themes and Stanislavski's principles which swept through Soviet ballet in the 1930s and 1940s. It has remained a classic - unashamedly of its era but also a living example of the dramatic style that was to colour much later works.

But despite the Kirov's careful preservation (just take a look at the old photographs of Galina Ulanova, Zakharov's original Maria, flinching from Guirei's touch) of what it deems a relevant slice of ballet heritage, Fountain still comes as something of a cultural shock to Western audiences. (It also helps us to understand why today's Russia prefers Bejart to Balanchine: anyone reared on this kind of diet would.)

Like Le Corsaire or the most ridiculous sections of La Bayadere, Fountain is hoot-a-minute stuff; so over the top that you're grateful for Zakharov's uncharacteristic lapses into half-decent (actually mediocre) choreography. These include the pas de deux for Maria (Yulia Makhalina/ Zhana Ayupova) and her fiance (Viktor Baranov/ Andrei Yakovlev, but who cares?); Zarema's sensual dances for Guirei in Act Two; and Maria's harp solo in which she recalls her home, family and Vaslav, prior to being murdered by Zarema.

Most spectacular, and most Bolshoi in manner, is the warrior dance in Act Four. Guirei, now terminally morose, can't be bothered with any of it. Newly captured slaves are dragged before their master; beefy chaps crack their whips; and the acrobatically inclined Nourali launches straight into some show-stopping leaps backed by a frantic chorus of Cossack dancers. Meanwhile, Zarema, condemned to death, jumps from the back wall of the palace courtyard.

Of the first and second cast Zaremas, Sylvia Guillem's is an elegant and dangerous clothes horse whose initial promenade, velvet robe trailing majestically behind her, eventually gives way to a searing portrayal of jealousy and rage. But Altynai Asylmuratova's interpretation is the more effective; realising that she has lost Guirei's favour, Asylmuratova's Zarema gasps, fist on teeth, and collapses.

Whereas her agony is palpable, Guirei's sorrow, as he mourns Maria, seems nothing more than an ineffectual series of peculiarly histrionic gestures. And for a company which appears to have a fetish for water-spurting decor - fountains have graced its Sleeping Beauty and Corsaire - the pathetic sculpture of trickling electric light at which Guirei weeps is the most surprising lost opportunity of all.

n Season runs to 12 August (booking: 0171-632 8300)

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