Igor's belles

Igor Zelensky is in demand. He's one of a rare breed of male dancers who can work with anyone and name their price. He's also got a soft spot for Darcey Bussell. So London may well be seeing more of him in future than the occasional `Nutcracker'.ise Levene
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Tall, Kirov-trained and implausibly handsome, Igor Zelensky is just about God's gift to dance. New York City Ballet, home to the 26-year- old Georgian for the past four years, certainly seems to think so. His departure from St Petersburg was a great loss to the Kirov, whose beautiful ballerinas are not always matched by their partners. However, unlike the bad old days when leaving a Russian company meant great leaps to freedom, press conferences at Heathrow and your own South Bank Show, Russian dancers now get to enjoy the best of both worlds, dancing wherever and whatever they choose. His Kirov colleague Altynai Asylmuratova has danced with the Royal Ballet and Roland Petit and headlines English National Ballet's Albert Hall season next year. Zelensky dances all over the world - New York, London, San Francisco, Boston, Buenos Aires - but still makes return visits to the Kirov. In the past week he has danced with the Kirov in St Petersburg and Tokyo, at Christmas he joins the Kirov in London and next spring he dances with the Royal Ballet in La Bayadere, Romeo and Juliet and Balanchine's Apollo.

The chronic world-wide shortage of top-class male dancers means he is very much in demand. Young, unmarried and with a voracious appetite for new experiences, he finds the offers (and the cheques) irresistible. "I've been dancing a lot at the Colon in Buenos Aires. They are all the time calling me and it's fun to go once in a while." His thirst for new choreography, for fresh demands on his body, was what originally drew him to New York. "I'm a Georgian and I always wanted to do Balanchine. He uses a lot of Georgian folk dance. In Apollo, in the second variation, even in the first variation, it doesn't look like Georgian folk dancing but sometimes when I'm dancing I feel that it's there." It may be a flaw in his excellent English, but he seems to speak of Balanchine in the past tense, as if that particular lesson had ended. "I want to do everything in this life. I wanted to do Balanchine. I tried that stuff and I'm so happy I did it."

He is well placed to observe how Balanchine is danced by different companies: "Everybody dances Balanchine differently. Balanchine gave his work to everybody: ABT, Royal Ballet, everybody. Each company has to dance Balanchine their own way." This tolerance is a far cry from New York's Balanchinies, who regard most other readings of the master as sacrilegious ineptitude - "Mr B would be turning in his grave!" observed one fan after seeing the Kirov's reading of Theme and Variations. Zelensky is a lot more relaxed about other approaches, however inauthentic. "I just came from Symphony in C by the Kirov. I don't like it but they have to do it their own way."

He recently made a debut appearance with the Royal Ballet partnering Darcey Bussell in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky pas de deux and the pair can be seen dancing it on TV this Christmas. "Of course it was different." But it soon becomes plain that, for him, the difference lies not in any particular British approach but in the willowy form of Miss Bussell herself. "Darcey, she was beautiful. You don't see dancing like that everywhere. I'm sure if Balanchine saw her, he'd be so happy."

Although Zelensky seems happy to roam the world with his suitcase full of tights, wishful rumours sometimes suggest that he might join the Royal Ballet full-time. Covent Garden remains characteristically tight-lipped on tittle tattle of this sort until the announcement has actually been pinned to the Palace railings, but Zelensky's own sentiments certainly do nothing to contradict such speculation. For one thing, he likes British audiences. "In London you do a little something they know and they're waiting for it and they clap. When you go and see New York City Ballet, they never clap a step during a performance. At the Bolshoi, it's criminal: they clap every step. They see somebody coming? They clap. In Royal Ballet, they clap because it's beautifully done. I would love to dance more with the Royal Ballet. They have everything there. They have the best repertoire in the world."

Very possibly, but they are often criticised for not making the best use of it. Doesn't Paris have an equally diverse repertoire and a stronger reputation? "Yes, but at Paris you've got to be French. It's lots of complicated situations in Paris." Besides, Paris doesn't have Darcey Bussell, for whom Zelensky's (entirely professional) admiration is boundless. "I love to dance with Darcey. I feel her. She's a beautiful dancer."

London's other key attraction is its array of dramatic roles that would certainly make a change from Balanchine. "It's completely different. Balanchine ballets are short ballets. There isn't a story, there's not too much pantomime on stage. You've got to adapt to do three-act ballets. In one way, Balanchine's much more difficult. In another way, it's easier because after 20 minutes you're done." He thinks he probably appears to best advantage in "lyrical, dramatic parts with lots of jumping. I would love to try something new. First, I would love to do MacMillan. Romeo and Juliet is going to take a little while. It's going to take at least four weeks to learn that ballet. It's a different style."

Zelensky's presence in the schedules will revive box office interest in La Bayadere, a ballet that many have damned as long past its dance- by date. A Rajah's daughter murders the beautiful temple dancer who has stolen the heart of her betrothed only to have her rise from the grave with 32 ghostly sidekicks. "Of course it looks old-fashioned. It is old- fashioned, but I love to see it, to see the 32 Shades coming up. It's like going to see an old painting. This is a big world, we can find everything for everybody."

Although he champions the classics, he is keen to try more modern work - "I would love to do Forsythe" - which is good news for the Royal Ballet, which has four Forsythe pieces in its repertoire. But his horizons do not end with Covent Garden's back-catalogue. Christopher Bruce's work caught his eye while visiting Berlin. "I would love to do his pieces. Maybe, if you print this in the newspaper, it will happen."

For the time being, Zelensky is on the winter treadmill of Nutcrackers: St Petersburg, Tokyo and now London. He joins the Kirov on stage on Boxing Day but arrives in Britain several days beforehand. Where will he celebrate Christmas? He confesses himself at a loss. "I don't know. Maybe Darcey's going to invite me to her place?"n

The Kirov's `Nutcracker' opens tonight at the London Coliseum; Igor Zelensky joins the cast on 26 Dec (booking: 0171-632 8300). He also features in ITV's `Dance!' on 27 Dec and will guest with the Royal Ballet in March and April

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