DANCE / Talent on the treadmill of art: Louise Levene reports on the first night of the Bolshoi Ballet's five-week occupation of the Albert Hall

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The day booking opened for the Bolshoi's Coliseum season in 1989 I queued for three hours to be sure of getting the seats I wanted. The entire six weeks were sold out within days. Four years later the Bolshoi is back with what is modestly billed as The Dance Event of the Century. Tickets are still available. Clearly London's appetite for mixed bills of potted ballets is not insatiable. Particularly when there is no new work on display.

What is new is the setting. The chronic shortage of dance venues in London has often led to adventurous compromises: The Building Design Centre in Islington, the Big Top in Battersea. This time it was the Royal Albert Hall, which has been exquisitely dressed for the occasion in a lavish set that recreates the swagged and gilded finery of the Tsar's box at the Bolshoi in Moscow. A large apron stage juts out into the auditorium enabling every seat to have a full view - even if it's a slightly odd one. Grigorovich has reworked the ballets to cater to the new sightlines but the effect is uncertain. So much of his own work and of the classics he has adapted are best enjoyed from the front. This is particularly true of the ensembles, which start to resemble a high class floorshow when performed in the round.

The cabaret effect was brought home forcibly when the first night kicked off with a few choice morsels from The Golden Age. The corps high-kicked a chorus line with military precision until the entrance of the Gedeminas Taranda's Twenties nightclub gangster. Taranda (who must be dancing the role in his sleep by by now) radiated menace, his legs cracking like a whip in the flicking leaps, dancing as if his solvency depended on it. Taranda's adversary is the bottle-blond Yuri Vasyuchenko dressed in the Daz- white T-shirt and jeans that telegraph his good-guy status. Vasyuchenko, also familiar from previous tours, continues to be a partner of astonishing strength. Alla Mikhalchenko may only weigh seven stone wringing wet but you try propelling her across your shoulders at speed. The suite concludes with this pas de deux, the happy ending implicit in their embrace. And the story? Without a close acquaintance with the work or a handy reference book (the pounds 10 programme would be no help) you would conclude that the ballet is a glorified apache dance.

A more familiar suite is Act III of Swan Lake. Galina Stepanenko whizzed through pirouettes, skipped across the stage with crisp releves and was everything a Black Swan should be. Tellingly, she lacked that all-important hint of White. When dancing the false Odile a ballerina should always parody her own performance as the fluttering Odette; Stepanenko gave no hint of the other half of the role, apparently content to dance Odile in splendid isolation. 'That was more like it' muttered a relieved woman behind me and the audience livened up a bit, managing a few bravos for Stepanenko.

The first night concluded with selected highlights from Romeo and Juliet, a work that shows Grigorovich at his best: responding to a strong score and a simple idea. His vision of the ballet shifts the emphasis from boy-meets-girl to man- hates-boy, exploring the masculine rivalries that constitute the feud and endowing his extraordinarily powerful line-up of male dancers with vicious, exciting choreography. Alexander Vetrov's Tybalt slices through the teenage romance like a blade, his working leg describing pirouettes with a line so sharp you expected him to disappear through a neat hole cut in the floor. Meanwhile Yuri Klevtsov and Nadezhda Gracheva, both in their early twenties, flit in and out of the action declaring their love in complex lifts and implausibly fleet, light jetes. The audience had clearly been pacing itself and became quite animated.

The Bolshoi's principals danced superbly and deserved their warm reception. They may seem short on dramatic power but this is scarcely their fault given that Grigorovich's suites reduce his artists to mere dancing machines unable to display the full range of their talents. One has only to recall how the company's greatest loss, Irek Mukhamedov, has stretched awake in the Royal Ballet's repertoire since joining them in 1990 to imagine how these dancers would respond to a more imaginative programme - instead of just an imaginative rewrite of a familiar one. As it is they seem doomed to repeat the same virtuoso movements night after night, tour after tour on the treadmill of their art.

Ticket information 071 589 8212

(Photograph omitted)