BALLET / The rude awakening: Judith Mackrell reflects on the future of the Kirov in the light of its Sleeping Beauty at the Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
ONCE UPON a time there lived in Russia a beautiful and talented classical dancer called Faroukh Ruzimatov. One day he and the Kirov company visited the West and Ruzimatov discovered worldwide fame. Very quickly, he learnt all the tricks that made his public scream loudest. But, as he did so, he fell victim to a bad spell. Now, five years later, his head seems full of imagined applause as he dances, while his style has become a disconnected thing of puffed-out ribs, broken elbows and shrill gymnastics.

As Prince Desire in Thursday night's performance of The Sleeping Beauty, it should have been Ruzimatov who delivered the rest of the ballet from the fairy's wicked curse. In fact, as he continued in pursuit of his own loopy artistic destiny, it was Larissa Lezhnina as Aurora who seemed far more in control. Though she has nothing like Ruzimatov's star quality (and it's impossible not to be fascinated by his supple golden body and his black, blank gaze), she is a dancer of artful but unpushy finesse whose exquisite decorum was perfectly suited to the role.

Her poise, in all of the ballet's most tricksy balances and turns, was brilliant without the faintest suggestion of flaunt. The quick, bright detail in her head, arms and feet was all perfectly placed and, as the ballet progressed, she grew visibly from girlish prettiness to grandeur. On Thursday night, even the fact that Ruzimatov semed unwillling to lift her more than a few inches off the floor did little to dent her angelic grace.

But if the ballet was, in a quiet way, Lezhnina's own triumph, the production as a whole mirrored the Kirov's current uncertain state. When the company came to London in 1988, after a gap of 18 years, it was many people's first viewing of the dancers and it felt like the glorious past made flesh. This was the company on whom Petipa had made some of ballet's greatest classics; these were the productions of Swan Lake or Giselle whose essence had been preserved by a century's unbroken succession of performance.

These were dancers, too, who were known as a benchmark for classical purity the world over. In 1988, with older ballerinas like Irina Kolpakova still dancing and with new stars like Altynai Asylmouratova on the rise, you could see the meticulous beauty of the Kirov training reflected from one generation to another, and displayed throughout the company - from principals down to corps.

Five years and the break-up of the Soviet Union on, all that inheritance is still evident. But in The Sleeping Beauty, as in all of this season's offerings, there are signs of its gradual erosion. The gems in Petipa's choreography have been lovingly polished and set, yet their sparkle is tarnished by the production's desperately shoddy designs. Scruffy horsehair wigs and meanly cut outfits make half the dancers look as if they've been dressed from a theatrical bring-and-buy stall. (Even more distractingly, the outsize blond wigs clamped on the heads of the little children in Act 1 make them look like a troupe of dancing melons.)

In Beauty, as in every ballet, the corps de ballet remains unwaveringly true to legend and there are also single performances where the Kirov still fields impressive dancers. Yuliana Lopatinn as the Lilac Fairy, for instance, combined a nervy high-bred delicacy of limb with an astonishing assurance and strength. Yet most of the other soloists danced with unmemorable correctness - as if the training was in their bodies but not in their hearts. This, coupled with the steady depletion of the company's talents at principal level, means the Kirov's identity no longer seems so gloriously invincible.

Its problems are partly caused by a new vulnerability to market and cultural forces. No longer sealed in the protective time-warp of the old Soviet Union, the Kirov has to try to hang on to its inheritance, while at the same time adding whatever new work it can to the repertoire. It has to be seen to be preserving the old company styles even as its dancers start to discover new ways of dancing in the West, and it has to maintain its standards even while being forced into long periods of touring to make up for the loss of state subsidies. The company that used to be ballet's most illustrious living museum now has a new identity to figure out for itself.

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(Photograph omitted)