DANCE / Dancing bred in the bone: Judith Mackrell on the Kirov's Swan Lake, straightforward and stunning

When I first saw the Kirov's production of Swan Lake, it made me remember coming across Grimm's original fairy tales when I was a child. Other versions of the stories suddenly seemed vaguely fake - the pictures wrong, the words silly, as if no one really believed in them any more.

In Swan Lake it's not that the Kirov stick to a completely authentic text. Later hands have nipped and tucked Petipa and Ivanov's choreography and have added steps of their own. But everything about the staging conspires to let the ballet speak for itself - respects the fact that it's great on its own terms without the need for design concepts, editing or palliative updates in the movement.

The sets are old-fashioned story- book gothic, which lets the action live and breathe. The costumes are grand without clutter. And as a company the dancers seem to inhabit the world of the ballet by right. The aristocrats have the demeanor of people raised at court; the troupes of national dancers perform the mazurka, czardas etc as if the steps are bred in their bones. So too the swans.

Whatever political and financial crises the company is currently navigating - the corps de ballet continues to look timelessly undistracted by the real world. The ranks of swans in Acts 2 and 4 still give the illusion of dancing on the impulse of a collective breath, they still create the impression of pure music and form in motion. In their dancing you see classical ballet at its most enduring, rigorous, poetic and true.

On Friday night the cast at soloist and principal level were much less even - the production may be a great one but it's not entirely dancer-proof. It was illuminating, in fact, to see how revealing bad dancers can be about a company style. One of the leading Big Swans brought all the Kirov mannerisms together into a freakish parody - joints painfully angled, head gloomily bowed, feet jabbing the stage. Andrei Yakovlev II, accompanying two lovely women soloists in the Act 1 pas de trois, was as ponderous as any heavyweight Soviet danseur can be - disguising his own lack of stretch and elevation with rumbling preparations and constantly rooting himself into massive four-square positions on stage.

Hardly more animated, unfortunately, was Alexander Kurkov as Prince Siegfried (where are all the Kirov men this season?). He danced and acted with so little relish that you frequently forgot he was there. This, though, was hardly surprising given Yulia Makhalina's extraordinary performance as Odette / Odile. Hers was not an interpretation to touch the heart - but it was a riveting exhibition of style. Makhalina is a dancer of extremes - she can move with an eerie, slow fragility, then suddenly snap into a steely, staccato strength. Her line is all angles - some delicate and strange, some drastic and harsh. So, if her Odette was not exactly a tender swan-princess, she was mesmerisingly exotic and wild, and her Odile was simply formidable. Not so much a phenomenon of sex as of will, Makhalina tossed off the 32 fouettes at such a lick that if you'd blinked you'd have missed them.

The lack of emotional chemistry between her and Kurkov might have been more damaging to the ballet's drama if it weren't for the playing of the Maryinsky Kirov orchestra, this time under Viktor Fedotov. Tchaikovsky's music simply wrapped itself round the whole performance, weaving its magic, illuminating the action and winding up the tragic momentum until the cathartic close.

Further perfs tonight to Thursday, then 27-29 July, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (071-836 3161)

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