Keeping in step

The Kirov Ballet has been performing `Don Quixote' since its creation by the company's founding father in 1869. And they remain true to its original spirit. Today sees its first London staging. By John Percival
A lesson in history: The Kirov Ballet keeps alive its tradition of staging `Don Quixote' Photo: Baranovsky

By opening their London season tonight with Don Quixote, the Kirov Ballet will be showing both a complete novelty and a slice of history. On one hand, this is the earliest surviving creation by their great founding father Marius Petipa, first given in 1869, just when he was made principal choreographer of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Yet although in Russia this work comes close to Swan Lake in popularity, the Kirov surprisingly have never brought it here before.

Petipa was the man who gave Russian ballet (and thus the whole world) its classical tradition, adding grandeur to the earlier romantic style. But Don Quixote shows another side of him, mixing comedy with brilliance. The title might give the wrong expectation. The hero of Cervantes's vast epic novel, and his disreputable servant Sancho Panza, are among the characters, but the story, adapted from just one of their adventures, is really about how the enterprising barber Basil wins the publican's daughter Kitri against opposition from a rich rival.

The comic liveliness with which Petipa shows their romance helps explain why his ballet has outlasted the decades. The premiere was in Moscow (where the Imperial Theatres lent him from St Petersburg) and audiences there enjoyed a lot of broad jokes in the mime and a multitude of colourful Spanish dances.

But when Petipa restaged it in Petersburg two years later he made many changes, refining the comedy and introducing far more classical dancing. The solos and ensembles now anticipated the brilliance and lyricism of his most famous later ballets (The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere), but with a lot of subtle humour which gives it a wholly different flavour.

In its earliest years Don Quixote could easily have been lost, shouldered aside by new productions - as were Petipa's other early success. But enough people enjoyed Quixote to keep it alive. Among them was an ambitious young choreographer named Alexander Gorsky who, being appointed ballet master in Moscow in 1900, was authorised to revive Petipa's ballet there, making changes where he thought necessary. His main aim, it seems, influenced by Stanislavsky, was to enliven the crowd, scenes, but he also commissioned new designs from two young painters, Alexander Golovin and Konstantin Korovin.

This restaging was so successful that the director of the Imperial Theatres had Gorsky repeat it in Petersburg in 1902. Petipa, knowing that the management wanted to retire him (at 84, he was still going strong with new works), was understandably disgruntled and asked a rehearsal director to "Remind that young man I'm not dead yet". But in fact Gorsky did both Petipa and himself a service. Thanks to this production, some of Petipa's most enjoyable choreography has come down to us, while Gorsky's contribution to its preservation has kept his name alive when all his original creations have vanished.

Plenty of other companies have mounted versions of Don Quixote based on Petipa's, but usually at several removes and often missing the point. The Royal Ballet a few years back, for instance, omitted many character dances and made a cramped little hash of the vision scene. The Bolshoi Ballet added such unlikely touches as an Apache dance. Nureyev, with a real feeling for Petipa, kept most of the best features but, even so, modified and streamlined their presentation. Only the Kirov have preserved the form and spirit of the original.

Even there, one or two dances have been reworked. Fyodor Lopokov, a choreographer renowned both for controversial experiments and for preserving the classics, did a new fandango, and Igor Belsky, the choreographer who is now artistic director of the Vaganova Academy (the Kirov's world-famous school), told me: "We know that the gypsies dance is not by Petipa, because it was staged by Nina Anisimova and myself." But Belsky is convinced that all the ballerina's solos and duets, the dances for her two friends and the whole dream sequence are real Petipa, and most of the rest is authentic "Petipa-or-Gorsky".

What enables him to be sure is, first, that the Academy's pupils become familiar with the old classics right from their schooldays. Small sequences from these turn up among the classroom exercises, and pupils perform complete solos and pas de deux in end-of-term concerts. And Belsky commented, "We try to insist that they follow the right style while they are here" - even to the extent of having a compulsory two-year course in Corps de Ballet Tradition as part of the curriculum.

On top of this is not only a continuous performing tradition within the company, but an extensive coaching system. Huddled as inconspicuously as possible in one corner of a large studio at the Maryinsky Theatre, I watched the ballerina Zhanna Ayupova rehearsing the solos from Don Quixote to piano accompaniment and repeatedly breaking off whenever not quite satisfied by some detail of position or timing, to talk it over with her coach before going back to get it right by her own standards.

No fewer than nine coaches are listed currently in the Don Quixote programme, chief among them Ninel Kurgapkina and Gennadi Selyutsky - who both danced starring roles with the Kirov in London during the 1960s. Kurgapkina (who danced often with Nureyev in his Russian days) assured me that there have been few changes during more than 50 years she has known the ballet: "Mainly cutting small passages that did not appeal to audiences - some walking around for Quixote, and a huge spider that used to cross the stage before his dream." This spider was a vestige from the first Moscow Don Quixote, where the Don's reaction to being hit by a windmill was grotesque nightmare rather than romantic vision.

Kurgapkina learnt the ballet from Yelena Lukom, who became a soloist in Petersburg when this production was only 10 years old. Lukom deserves posterity's thanks for remaining in her native city when most of its top ballerinas moved after the Revolution to London or Paris. Luckily, Lukom had a wide range, a good memory, and a wish ("which is not always the case in teachers", Kurgapkina remarked) to see her pupils dance at least as well as she had.

So, when other companies (ballet, opera and drama) are always chasing after new interpretations, the Kirov's directors happily know the wisdom of keeping something that is good. Perhaps it comes partly from walking streets that are scented by history. We shall even see, in London this month, scenery and costumes still based on the designs of Golovin and Korovin: light, fresh exteriors, dark, atmospheric interiors, and a hint of art nouveau that must have seemed revolutionary when first seen and still looks lovely today.

And I have not yet mentioned the music. It has become, fashionable to sneer at Leon Minkus as a hack composer, because he had an official theatre appointment and wrote to order. But he gave Petipa just what was needed: lively, engaging, varied, colourful, full of good melodies and rhythms that are perfect for dancing to. And if you had seen, as I did from a stage box at the Maryinsky, the face of Victor Fedotov as he conducted it, and heard the playing of the Maryinsky orchestra, you would know that first-rate musicians can love this music.

The Kirov Ballet performs `Don Quixote' at the London Coliseum tonight, tomorrow, Thurs, 25, 26 July, at 7.30pm. Booking: 0171-632 8300