DANCE Don Quixote The Kirov, Coliseum, London

How wise of the Kirov to open the company's five-week London season with the British premiere of Don Quixote. Superbly danced and often hilariously funny, the ballet is sure to be a huge hit. The scenario, broadly similar to the Baryshnikov and Nureyev productions, is essentially the tale of Kitri, the innkeeper's daughter, who wishes to marry Basil, the barber, despite her father's ambitions. The Don, played with melancholy grandeur by Vladimir Ponomarev, wanders in and out of the action providing a diversion when the lovers need to escape, and helping to cement their union at the ballet's close.

A canny bit of casting gave the first-night to the company's most popular dancers. Igor Zelensky, whose last London appearances with the Kirov saw him sleepwalking obligingly through The Nutcracker, was enjoying himself thoroughly as the roguish, affectionate Basil. Manly and magnificent despite his rather dubious black lace blouse, his proprietorial affection for the teasing Kitri is brilliantly sustained and has the audience giggling at every shrug and sighing at every reconciliatory embrace. The wholeheartedness of his mime and the insouciant diligence of his partnering is exhilarating. In Act 3, he affects to flirt with the local talent, turning, almost casually at the last possible moment, to catch his Kitri, who has skittered furiously across the stage to hurl herself horizontally into his arms.

He is brilliantly matched by Altynai Asylmuratova, whose witty Kitri is a heady cocktail of angel and minx, a delicious (if explosive) combination not seen in London since Sylvie Guillem scintillated in the role at Covent Garden in the Royal Ballet's sadly inferior production. At the pinnacle of the one-armed lifts in Act 1, Asylmuratova peeps down at Zelensky and gives a saucy rattle of her tambourine like a delighted child. The grandeur of the famous Act 4 pas de deux is heightened by our knowledge of the two lovers and our satisfaction in their triumphant union. Although Asylmuratova, at 36, may have lost a little of the technical bravura she showed in the pas de deux back in 1988, the greatness of her dancing has always been in details rather than in the height of flick jetes or the dizzying speed of her fouettes. Adoring glances flash across her shoulder to punctuate each sequence of supported pirouettes. The crystalline finish to every pose is an affirmation of the certainty of her love. And who couldn't love a man who dances like this? There was absolute hush as Zelensky slid in from the wings for his solos, breathless silence as we watched him carve a vast orbit in space with his huge, juicy jumps and high leading leg.

Even without such stars, the evening would have been a triumph in a ballet so rich in dancing and character - and so lavishly cast! Principals Tatiana Amasova and Maya Dumchenko both contributed show-stopping solo variations. Galina Rakhmanova in the "Gypsy Dance" and Alexandra Gronskaya's Mercedes demonstrated the unnerving flexibility of the notorious Kirov spine, but the effect was erotic, never merely acrobatic. Andrei Yakovlev's bullfighter Espada danced with his cape in an ecstasy of pride and passion; his pussy- cat toes picked a spot on the stage and pounced upon it with predatory precision. He was supported by a squadron of handsome bullfighters dancing with a speed and brio that made their dance with the daggers positively alarming. The haughty tosses of the head may be a tad exaggerated, but they never slip over the top into camp. They savour every step of Espada's seductive Act 3 apache with the keen eyes of connoisseurs, as their capes flourish behind Mercedes like tongues of flame.

Viktor Fedotov's very arrival on the podium was enough to prompt a chorus of bravos from excitable fans who had good reason to know what musical treats lay in store - and this was just Minkus. By the end of the evening, he was led on to acknowledge the audience's gratitude for his responsive conducting. A brief bow and he retreated upstage, modestly shooting his cuffs as he urged the dancers into the spotlight.

The Kirov are in residence at the London Coliseum to 9 Aug. `Don Quixote': tonight, 25 July, 26 July mat and eve Louise Levene

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