Dance: The best, and hottest, ballerinas in town

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The Independent Culture
ARE Russian dancers better?Last week provided some fine opportunities to compare and contrast. Darcey Bussell was making her debut as Giselle, and Sylvie Guillem was guest artist in the Kirov's Fountain of Bakhchisarai.

You need no further proof of Darcey Bussell's star status than the fact that it was standing-room only in the antiquated, un-air-conditioned Opera House. Sweat? I nearly bought a Lottery ticket. The packed house was there to watch Bussell add Giselle to her other triumphs. On paper, she shouldn't be able to get her legs round choreography conceived for a smaller, nippier dancer. But then on paper bees can't fly. In practice the young star breezed through the steps, although the grandeur and clarity of her dancing was a little unexpected in the pastoral first act. Some dancers see Giselle as a flaky, melancholy girl already boureeing on the brink of mental illness; others prefer to contrast the happy peasant with the suicidal jilt. Bussell has plumped for the second option: a wise move. Her obviously robust health and serene manner would make it hard for her to suggest long-standing neurosis. Instead she implodes suddenly and terribly, her face crumpled into an ugly mask of pain from the moment her lover takes Bathilde's hand. The source of Bussell's intensely felt interpretations has always been a mystery. Somewhere between class and performance the alchemy occurs, but the roots of this dramatic intelligence remain a secret between her and her repetiteur.

Her partner was Jonathan Cope, who retains his elevation and neat beaten jumps. Russian ballet used to have all the good men, but the Kirov would kill for Cope now: tall, handsome, considerate, and with all his own hair.

Not that hair is required for the bald male lead in the Fountain of Bakhchisarai, Rotislav Zakharov's 1934 ballet based on Pushkin's poem about a Tartar chieftain's love for a captured Polish princess.

We open in Poland, where hideously dressed character dancers party lustily on the castle terraces. Various maidens are abducted, including the Princess (Yulia Makhalina), who snatches up her trusty harp and polyester veil for travelling. On removing this tantalising object, Vladimir Ponomarev's Khan Gurei is astounded by her beauty and begins to quiver and genuflect uncontrollably. Curtain.

It was an uncomfortable audience that descended on the bar. We were hot and irritable and there was an unspoken fear that this revival wasn't going to be one of those pearls that the Kirov culture from a speck of dross, but a genuinely Dreadful Ballet. Nervous laughter rang out.

Act two. Khan Gurei's harem. Soviet choreographers have always had a problem portraying decadence. In Bakhchisarai the pleasures of the harem are largely confined to bare midriffs and unlimited supplies of fresh fruit. Sex is the last thing on anyone's mind - until Her entrance. Nobody had clapped when Makhalina took the stage. The applause for Sylvie Guillem's appearance in act two nearly held up the action. Sylvie is Zarema, favourite of the harem, exquisitely dressed and radiant with happiness at her master's return. On learning of her rival, she decides to dance him into submission in a scintillating solo that showcases all her skills. No dice. He still prefers the imported kind. The man must be mad.

In act three, Khan, amorous in the Kirov's regulation turquoise silk pyjamas, makes a play for his Polish princess. Enter Sylvie, who pleads with, threatens and finally murders her hapless rival. When Gurei draws his dagger to kill her, Guillem merely arches her back to meet the blade. The pride and the anguish in the gesture chill the blood, but it's downhill from there. Zarema is executed, leaving Khan to his memories of Maria, and the grateful audience to its memories of Guillem.

'Bakhchisarai': Coliseum, WC2, 0171 632 8300, ends tomorrow.