Dance: Glimpses of past glories

BIGGEST AND best? Most people would have accepted that description of the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet when they first visited London four decades ago. In spite of Russia's financial difficulties the company remains enormous: the detachment sent to the Coliseum this month is larger than the Royal Ballet, and many more remain at home.

Just how good they are will have to be judged over four weeks, six programmes and quite a few alternating casts. So, first impressions only. Their choice of opener, La Bayadere, is one of the less familiar old classics. The Bolshoi's biggest virtue in this is the wholehearted way the company as an entirety performs it. But they deserve a better production.

Unfortunately, it is given in a staging by their former artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, who never impressed me as understanding classic style. For a quick improvement, they could take out every extra fidgety hop, skip and jump he added.

Luckily, not even Grigorovich can spoil the highlight of this ballet, the famous scene of the ghosts, led by the dead heroine. Here the Bolshoi, reconstructing the original 1877 designs, reveals one magical effect: their entry, instead of one pure austere line, winds back and forward down a series of slopes, so that you see the intended effect of descending the sides of the Himalayas.

The two leading women did not come off too well on opening night. Nadezhda Gracheva, as the tragic temple dancer Nikiya, dances in a brittle manner and proves unexpectedly, inappropriately flirtatious. Her rival for the hero's love, the proud princess Gamzatti, is presented by Inna Petrova as a brassy vamp - not helped by the drastic changes to her role. No wonder their confrontation, usually a dramatic highlight, became almost comic.

Luckily Andrei Uvarove, as the object of their rivalry, Solor, overcomes the production's disadvantages except for the curiously weak solo he is given in Act 2. Bold in movement, he acts clearly and heroically and, once he is allowed the traditional dances in Act 3, he gives them with a lot of class.

The Bolshoi orchestra played its vital part in the total effect. Some of Alexander Kopylov's tempi were disconcerting, especially in the incredibly brisk overture, but they held together as the evening continued, and the solo instrumental playing was outstanding, especially the unidentified violinist in Act 3.

Both the decor - sombre and monumental - and the corps de ballet probably looked better on their larger stage at home, but I do not want to carp about them because already there is some sign of the Bolshoi moving back towards former glories - which, happily, further performances may confirm.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper