DANCE / Caught napping at their posts: Judith Mackrell finds that the Kirov isn't living up to its great reputation

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Signs of torpor and technical backsliding in the Kirov's opening productions suggest that all is not well with the company. Wednesday evening's Gala Programme confirmed that the world's greatest classical ensemble is slipping into artistic limbo. Certain treasures from the Kirov's illustrious inheritance do shine still; the corps remains a sublimely tuned instrument, there are some dancers who seem instinctively possessed of the old Kirov style and there are even moments of brilliance in otherwise mediocre performers. The Kirov off-form remains better than many.

But with so many of the company's senior dancers absent or on leave in the West and with so few potential stars coming up through the ranks the general level of dancing looks demoralised and dull. The fabled guardians of the classical past are napping at their posts.

They are also failing to build themselves a convincing future. The season's promoters admittedly seem unwilling to show the company in anything other than three-act classics. The mixed Gala bill gets only one airing in a run of five weeks. And what modern choreography there is tucked away in a medley of old and family divertissements - a formula whose creaky applause-milking conventions are both demeaning to the dancers and exasperating to anyone looking for signs of life in the company.

Admittedly, too, the most interesting work, Jerome Robbins' In the Night, was withdrawn at the last minute. It may not have been the Kirov's fault that Robbins refused them permission to dance this outside Russia. But judging from their performance of Balanchine's Scotch Symphony it may have been because they don't dance it up to scratch.

Scotch Symphony (1952) is one of Balanchine's most Romantic and superfically straightforward works. Yet within the drifting jumps, the misty arms and the noble leaps there are some deadly moments of trickery and quirky details of style that demand vigilantly intelligent performances. Though Larissa Lezhina as the lead woman was prettily at ease in the more familiar passages, she, like the other dancers, just couldn't get her feet around the choreography fast enough and tended to blur its dynamic contrasts to a steady and soporific beat. Most criminally lethargic was Alexander Kurkov who took what seemed like minutes over each preparation and was so busy spinning out his few heroic gestures that he failed to cross the stage in time to support Lezhina in a critical pirouette.

This was at least choreography worth showing though, unlike Oleg Vinogradov's dreadful Adagio (1991) which deals with 'modern man, the peculiarities of his psychology and his tribulations'. Vinogradev's peculiarities and our tribulations. To the over-familiar strains of Samuel Barber's Adagio a lycra-clad couple wind through a grim-faced, joint-wrenching duet which viciously hacks across the music's dreamy phrasing. On Wednesay night, as Yulia Makhalina and Konstantin Zaklinksy teetered through some of the most ridiculous lifts and balances ever contrived, you could hear the death knell of Russian choreography.

For the record, the rest of the evening included the lovely buoyant pas de six from St Leon's La Vivandiere, diverts from the Kirov version of The Nutcracker and possibly the most irksomely perky piece in the whole repertoire - the pas de trois from the Legat brothers' Fairy Doll.

(Photograph omitted)