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Dance: Mimes that chime

THE CONCLUSION, after nearly falling off my seat with shock from the set designs, is that the Bolshoi Ballet's new production of Giselle is not a radical rethink at all. (That will come later, with its Swan Lake.) Instead, the Bolshoi Theatre's artistic director, Vladimir Vassiliev, has made a few changes in the first act that chime in with Peter Wright's production of Giselle for the Royal Ballet, on stage a couple of miles away at Sadler's Wells.

But the addition of a dance for Giselle's rough-cut suitor, Hilarion, is as welcome as central heating in the present sauna-conditions of the Coliseum. He and his flanking Rhineland friends shake tambourines, which had me wondering about cultural accuracy, but then tambourines feature in contemporary engravings of the ballet. Peasants, it seems, have always been interchangeable: as long as they rollick and caper who cares if they are transplanted Italians?

That apart, then, the two versions are choreographically not so different, but the presentation is. Sergei Barkhin's stylised Bolshoi sets are so pale in the first act they look lightly dusted with snow, despite the warm autumnal day; while the second nocturnal act might be set in a Caribbean jungle. Hubert de Givenchy's costumes, though, are attractive and especially chic for the Duke's hunting party, much better than the Royal Ballet's over-the-top ducal assortment.

As for the performances, the Bolshoi scores highest for the general discipline and clarity of its dancing. But what always disappoints with Russians is the way they perform mime. It is not just that there is less of it, but that it comes across asartificial and vague. Hands stroke the air in generalised wavings and flourishes that could mean anything; detail and precision are absent. Is it that Russian ballet has forgotten how to do mime? Or is it that British training has, over the decades, refined it to a vividly explicit and dramatic medium?

Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire, guesting with the Royal Ballet, are quintessential French dancers, but were also superlative in their mime and naturalistic acting. They are a long-standing stage partnership and interact wonderfully. They have pondered and extended their roles, introducing new touches so that suddenly Giselle and Albrecht slough off the staleness of accumulated interpretations to appear fresh and alive again. Hilaire, impossibly handsome, strikes just the right note of autocratic elegance and infatuation: how well-observed, for example, when Berthe mimes her warning about Wilis, for him to be more occupied with the warmth of Giselle's skin and only half able to conceal his contempt at Berthe's uneducated superstition. And then there is Guillem's Giselle, the horrifying stillness of her mad scene contrasting with her former vitality, where joy of life is synonymous with joy of dancing.

Guillem dances so effortlessly, so naturally, her body is so exactly responsive she can produce inflections and subtleties of movement that no one else can. There is simply far more in an enchainement danced by her. The Bolshoi's Giselle, Svetlana Lunkina, had an elfin face, fine- drawn physique, and suitably high-strung air. Her dancing was as light and perfect as possible, but she is just not a phenomenon as Guillem is. Sergei Filine as Albrecht, equally good-looking, was a polished partner and stylish, if not stunningly virtuosic, dancer.

The Bolshoi, like the Paris Opera Ballet, is exceptional for its array of men, where other companies have problems finding men who can dance, let alone look good. Without the darkly dashing Nikolai Tsiskaridze in the title part of Paganini, added as an opener to Giselle, the banal and dated choreography would have been less bearable. The late Leonid Lavrovsky was the choreographer who created it in 1960 to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Highly esteemed back home and known here for his sensational Romeo and Juliet (which is performed by the Kirov Ballet), in Paganini he presents an evocation of the violinist's life which is exhausting in its whirl of pirouettes, muses (led by the ethereal Nina Kaptsova) and tormentors.

Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells to 31 July. Booking: 0171 863 8000