Don't blame it on the ballet

As the Royal Ballet's `Cinderella' and the Kirov's `Nutcracker' bow out today, Louise Levene reflects on two productions that, despite their star turns, never quite believe in their own magic

Miyako Yoshida's combination of modest sweetness and sure classical technique made her an obvious choice for Frederick Ashton's Cinderella. The touchstone of his conception of Perrault's story is gentleness. This isn't a chronicle of child abuse within a dysfunctional family, nor is it an allegory of the proletarian struggle against a decadent bourgeoisie (whatever Prokofiev's occasionally sarcastic score might suggest). For Ashton, Cinderella is the universally intelligible story of a wallflower whose dreams of sartorial splendour and social success are realised in one short magical night. Reduced to this, the tale seems a tawdry one, but the choreographer contrives, through the character of Cinders herself, to transcend bourgeois wish-fulfilment and create a story of wit, forbearance and the redemptive power of unselfish love. To pull this off, each meticulously drawn role must be enacted with total clarity, each relationship charted with scrupulous care. To be sure of our sympathy, Cinderella must show a satirical streak in her saucy parodies of the Ugly Sisters, but convey her filial devotion in the awkward tendernesses between herself and her father. It is these glimpses of the heroine beneath the rags in Act 1 that prepare us for the Prince's coup de foudre in the Ballroom.

Yoshida's Prince this season is Bruce Sansom. Neatly made, with boyish good looks and an exquisite line, he was born to dance Ashton's heroes. He acts too. In his exchanges with the Ugly Sisters (honey-roast ham from Messrs Page & Webb), his convincing air of dignity and courtesy mask a strong sense of the ridiculous. His duets with Yoshida are master-class material: he makes the long travelling lifts look painless and his eyes seldom leave his ballerina's face. The Prince's other big relationship is the curious bond between himself and the jester. Unhappily for Sansom, this role was danced by Tetsuya Kumakawa, who span and leapt fabulously but whose only relationship was, as always, with his public.

The Christmas trees may not come down until Monday but the Kirov Ballet's pink tinsel production of The Nutcracker will be put back in its tank of formaldehyde tonight after its 28th performance at the London Coliseum. Until relatively recently, the very thought of Russian ballet dancers live in captivity was enough to have ballet-fanciers and name-droppers queuing round the block on pointe, but increasing familiarity with the species has caused public enthusiasm to cool somewhat: there have been seats available for virtually every performance. Victor Hochhauser's choice of programme may have been part of the problem: three weeks is a hell of a lot of Nutcracker and only crazy balletomanes and stir-crazy critics bother to catch different casts. With a more varied schedule you stand a chance of getting some multiple bookings. Even the dancers look bored: stuck in the same roles night after night (presumably to save on extra wigs and costumes), they dance on auto-pilot and gossip visibly upstage. In July, the company returns with treats like Don Quixote, Giselle and The Firebird, plus some hoped-for guest appearances by Sylvie Guillem, which may all prove more inspiring for box-office and dancers alike. Stars always make a difference.

Anyone dragging themselves away from their turkey rissoles on Boxing Day in the hope of seeing New York City Ballet star Igor Zelensky before he becomes Darcey Bussell's guest partner in February would have been as disappointed as I was to see the words "Faroukh" and "Ruzimatov" typed in his place. Once possessed of a certain snorting appeal, this extremely handsome dancer has degenerated into a mannered pastiche of his former self. He was partnering Diana Vishneva, the archetypal Kirov ballerina of the Nineties: tall, svelte, technically assured and with all the warmth and originality of an After Eight mint.

The stock response to such criticism is to blame the ballet. Igor Zelensky has made it clear that it holds no particular interest for him: "It's for the children, not for the ballet dancers." With this production (and let's face it, many, many other productions), you can sympathise with such an attitude, but once a dancer starts to think like that, you can wave goodbye to a truly great performance. A classical dancer is required to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Asylmuratova and Mukhamedov inhabit such a wonderland and can move you to tears in scenarios as slight as the Nutcracker. In this ballet, Zelensky moves us only to applause. He wasn't bad, though. On Wednesday night, his partnering was a little over-anxious here and there - an occupational hazard when you're scheduled to dance with a different girl every day of the week. But his powerful jump, his meticulous landings and his altogether rather meaty classicism were a welcome sight. Roll on February.

Final performances today: Kirov `Nutcracker', 2.30pm, 7.30pm London Coliseum, WC2 (0171-632 8300); Royal Ballet `Cinderella' 12 noon, ROH, Covent Garden, WC2 (0171-304 4000)

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