DANCE / Corps, what a scorcher: Judith Mackrell sees the gloom lift from the Kirov

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It's the most transcendent, snigger-proof moment in classical ballet, capable of converting even the sneeriest of tutu-phobes. Thirty-two women in moonlit white descend, one by one, down a zigzag ramp. Torsos spiral into a high arch, legs soar into arabesque, arms circle. The procession goes on and on, flooding the stage, suspending time. For the corps de ballet it's a rare moment when they're the stars of the stage - and it's gruelling. Keeping on balance down the steep rake, pushing their bodies through the same taut phrase, the dancers have to fight against jelly muscles and concentration fatigue.

To see the Kirov in this opening sequence of the Shades act in La Bayadere has always ranked as one of the wonders of the ballet world. And Thursday night's luminous performance did nothing to dent the legend. The gloom that has been steadily settling over the Kirov season has suddenly lifted.

British audiences had their first look at a full-length Bayadere only four years ago when Natalia Makarova mounted it for the Royal Ballet. Yet although that production provided a slick, affectionate viewing of Petipa's 1877 ballet, and although it aimed for authenticity by restoring the lost final act - it's in the Kirov version that you still, magically, feel the pulse of the original.

One reason is that the sets are restored versions of the ballet's early staging. So while they are ersatz Indian, they look like 19th-century ersatz rather than 20th-century and the effect is of an old ballet lithograph come to life. A second reason is that the Kirov performs the ballet's crucial but mannered action passages with such vivid and unselfconscious zest. A third reason is the leisurely pace at which the Kirov production unfolds, allowing for much greater dramatic detail than Makarova's. And a fourth is the presence of at least two Kirov principals who know exactly what they're doing. Konstantin Zaklinksy is as heroic a Solor as they make them; Olga Chenchikova as Gamzatti injects a passionate tension into her acting and, despite her relative seniority, rises to a kind of glory in her dancing.

Yulia Makhalina as Nikiya had the audience in raptures: her long, thin arms and beautifully stretched back are perfect for the snaky orientalisms of the choreography. But she is also one of the new breed of super- ballerinas: she's not a musical dancer and her technical miracles often draw attention to themselves at the expense of the role. Sometimes it's not so much a dancer that you see as a quite phenomenally articulate arrangement of muscles and joints.

Le Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake: in rep to 31 July, London Coliseum, WC2 (071-836 3161)