The Kirov Ballet opened its five-week London season with Leonid Lavrovsky's 1940 version of Romeo and Juliet, the first Soviet production of the Prokofiev ballet. It was Nina Ananiashvilli's remarkable achievement that as Juliet she set in motion an epic drama from pure dance, even simple dance, since this version is rather short on choreographic flourishes. We will have to wait for Swan Lake, the next ballet in the Kirov's programme, to appreciate fully the exciting and refined Kirov style so enjoyed by British audiences in the past.
Beautifully proportioned with long, tapering legs, Ananiashvilli is a bravura dancer, probably as a result of her Bolshoi past. She is passionate from the start, growing fiercer as her feelings become inflamed by the young man she meets at the ball. Their first pas de deux is a euphoric dance of discovery during which she crosses to the land of love, giddy with surprise and delight. When her Nurse reveals Romeo's identity, Ananiashvilli could so easily have been crushed, but a look of bewilderment flickers across her face, hinting at the later defiance of her parents' will. The kitten has turned into a tiger.
The lovers meet secretly, she by now entranced, he (Yuri Posokhov) eager and tender. She puts her arms around his neck, and extends a leg behind in a gesture of unbearable longing, repeating the move when next she meets her father, begging him not to force her to marry the reviled Paris (Makhar Vaziev). Ananiashvilli evokes such emotion that we feel we are her, reeling fellow travellers sharing a destiny that is spinning out of control. Ananiashvilli carries the production, as she should: the ballet could readily be called Juliet.
After the 1961 tour when Nureyev defected to the West, the Kirov did not tour for almost two decades. The production of Romeo and Juliet has not emerged from the stodginess of the isolated years. Some of the men's costumes - velvet mini-tunics and garish satins - are out of a school history book of the Fifties, and some of the characterisations are peculiar. Lord Capulet (Vladimir Ponomarev) looked morelikely to find relief from his pained expression by answering the call of nature than through Juliet's arranged marriage.
The Kirov dancers are lauded for the beauty of their upper bodies - shoulders, arms, necks and heads - but never for fast footwork. The company used to indulge the dancers by slowing the music, but on Tuesday, the splendid Kirov orchestra moved so briskly through the score that the corps struggled to keep up, blurring the definition of the steps.
The company comes from a great classical ballet family, and still lives at a good address, the Maryinsky Theatre. So the dancers can be forgiven for dropping into the conversation names like Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov. Seen as the purest, cleanest, most authentic embodiment of the Russian classical style, the Kirov has been described as 'an essential point of reference, a shrine for classic dance and a source of inspiration'.
But the future is uncertain. With a programme dominated by 19th-century classics, the company is presenting its glorious past. Romeo and Juliet was a shrewd starter because of Ananiashvilli's magnificent contribution and because no one could fail to be moved by its emotivity. I look forward to the next course.
Coliseum (071-836 3161), Thurs to Sat. Season continues to 31 July.