Dance: Romeo and Juliet The Kirov at the Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture
Name that tune. The music was unrecognisable at first but gradually it crystallised into "Happy Birthday" and the audience burst, almost gratefully, into a rousing chorus of the song as the Queen Mother sat down next to the Queen in the centre of the Coliseum's Royal Box to enjoy her 97th birthday treat.

Good decision. The Kirov Ballet, clearly well on the road to recovery after a nasty period of post-Communist adjustment, has had a triumphant London season. The programming's mixture of novelty and box-office favourites has been largely successful. Their Don Quixote was a thorough delight and the demand for the three performances of Sleeping Beauty proves that audiences are not tired of the classics when danced and presented with grandeur and conviction. The corps de ballet continue to perform marvels of organic precision. The generous premiere-league casting has often meant a chance to savour two principal ballerinas a night. Altynai Asylmuratova, Empress of Russian ballet, has returned to prominence as the company's greatest asset and Igor Zelensky and a stag line of enormously promising young men all promise a bright future.

On Monday the company danced Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet. The production is very different from the 1965 Kenneth MacMillan version which, on a weak night, can degenerate into a few virtuoso pas de deux held together by yards and yards of very bad business. Although Lavrovsky's pas de deux may lack the athletic abandon of MacMillan's pairwork, Lavrovsky's production is, overall, a more sustained theatrical pleasure. The almost operatic staging gives the street scenes a verismo and vitality enhanced by the full-blooded dancing and zestful mime of the chorus.

In the fight scenes the piazza is awash with testosterone and Sergei Vikharev (a handsome version of Michael York) excelled as Mercutio. The character's volatile blend of charm and machismo was ably expressed in Vikharev's silky precision and steely attack. Some of the character acting comes a little close to scenery-chewing for some tastes but the histrionics suit the production and balance Prokofiev's marmoreal score. Can you imagine a British ballet dancer climbing on to Tybalt's bier and being carried off screaming and raving astride his corpse? Of course you can't. Nina Mikhailova pulled off this climax to Act 2 with astonishing power. Her performance provoked not merely pity for the bereaved Lady Capulet but terror of the vengeance that her ululation would unleash. She was well- matched by Vladimir Ponomarev at his eye-rolling best, despite a costume that looked like he'd popped out for a pint of milk in his Sulka dressing- gown. Wigs and costumes are not a priority for the impoverished Kirov at the moment but their artistry ensures that they succeed in spite of this.

At the ballet's heart was Altynai Asylmuratova as the playful child forced into early bloom by the coup de foudre that sabotages her life's happy ending. Even the Queen Mother had her opera glasses out for a squint at this magnificent performance. Asylmuratova's raised shoulders and arching torso express Juliet's yearning for an alternative future in which her love for Romeo will be sanctioned. We share her pain as her exotic, tip- tilted beauty stares sightlessly into the upper circle in a plea for understanding. Her partner was Viktor Baranov, who handled the overhead lifts with great success and whose acting seemed to grow in confidence as the story progressed. By the time his body lay draped head-first down the steps to Juliet's tomb, we could well understand the attraction. The ballet concludes, not with the two corpses, but with the grieving families who, as in the play, console each other and see the error of their enmity. Two further performances today, 2pm and 7.30pm (0171-632 8300)