DANCE / When revolution comes full circle: Judith Mackrell sees the Kirov perform Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet at the Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE Bolshoi Ballet first came to the West in 1956 it was in Leonid Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet that they earned their laurels as the world's most electrifying ballet company. This week the Kirov is back in London performing the same production. But, nearly 40 years on, this once revolutionary work now has the smell of the museum to it - part classic, part period piece and part fusty old relic.

Lavrovsky created the ballet in 1940 and it's clear now how hard he was struggling to develop a new idiom out of the 19th-century inheritance. His mime sometimes falls back on classical dumb-show but also experiments with a curious slow-motion semaphore (the chorus waving its arms in enthusiastic or maudlin time to the music) and, more successfully, with the beginnings of a naturalistic language of gesture.

In the choreography too there's a blend of academic formalism and a freer dance language, particularly in the lovers' pas de deux. These may lack the erotic charge of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet or the poignant lyricism of Ashton's, but there are moments where Lavrovsky finds real poetry. One image captures perfectly the point at which Juliet's virginal modesty surrenders to ecstasy - Romeo lifts her, in a slightly tremulous kneeling position, high above his head then lowers her to the floor in a slow, swooning spiral.

The ballet's most impressive moments come in the big crowd scenes. This production has some bizarre and antiquated details - eye make- up straight out of Nosferatu, stiff, moth-eaten wigs - but the impression of a stage crammed with diverse swarming humanity is powerful. You can see what a shock these passages must have been to audiences accustomed to the geometric patterns and fairy-tale characters of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake.

For all its historical interest though, Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet is an odd ballet for the Kirov to open with. The company's dancers can rise to an exquisite eloquence in their execution of the classical repertoire but in this more robust, sprawling work many of them appear stranded in a foreign element. They tend either to overact wildly (like Vladimir Ponomarev as Lord Capulet, who stalks lopsidedly around the stage under pressure of his own mad pride) or else to somehow absent themselves from their bodies while they are performing. The relief when they get down to some pure dance is palpable.

A few individuals are more natural dance actors. Sergei Vikharev, as Mercutio, has a face as mobile and sardonic as his dancing. But he needs a far more deadly Tybalt to taunt than the posey Dimitry Korneev whose gaze is more arresting for its lavish blue eye-shadow than for its evil glint. He also needs a more commanding pair of lovers as a foil. On Tuesday night Yuri Posokhov did all the jumping, lifting and emoting required of him as Romeo, but only in his sword fight with Tybalt did his passions seem genuinely roused. Maybe there'd been a squabble over the eye-liner.

Nina Ananiashvilli - actually an ex-Bolshoi dancer guesting this season - was a huge-eyed, impressionable Juliet. But though she moved with her usual plush and leggy grace, the choreography didn't galvanise her into her finest dancing, nor into acting of much detail and motive. The star of the evening was in fact the Maryinsky Kirov orchestra under Boris Grouzin, who gave a pacy and luminous account of Prokoviev's score. With five programmes to come and with more playing of this stature, the Kirov season has many treats up its sleeve.

The Kirov Ballet is at the Coliseum until 31 July (071-836 3161).