Dance: A swan to die for

We may get far too many Swan Lakes, but the Stanislavsky Ballet's version, first given back in 1953, is as fresh as ever, writes John Percival
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Long live revisionism! Personally, my ideal Swan Lake would be something as close as possible to what Petipa and Ivanov created in 1895, but we don't get that option nowadays. So, the production I enjoyed the most last year was Mats Ek's humorously sexy version at the Barbican, and although the new year has hardly begun, I strongly suspect that the Stanislavsky Ballet's treatment at the Festival Hall will prove my favourite for 2002.

First given back in 1953, it still looks fresh – there's a contrast with our own companies' short-lived productions. Vladimir Bourmeister, in making it, wanted to move towards Tchaikovsky's original score, without the customary revisions by lesser musicians. Like the two English choreographers who later made the same attempt (Jack Carter for Festival Ballet in 1966, Peter Darrell for Scottish Ballet in 1977), he found that this didn't really work and had to make some cuts, transpositions and additions; but he did achieve an attractive musical form, with some numbers more complete than we are used to, and handsomely played by the Stanislavsky orchestra.

Bourmeister's most obvious change was adding a short prologue to show the human Odette turned into a swan by Rothbart's wicked magic, and having her restored at the end. The prologue especially has been widely copied, but he makes it simple and effective. The disadvantage is that she remains a swan all through, losing the originally intended idea of resuming real life for half of each day. We might think that that makes Siegfried's falling in love less likely, but that doesn't seem to worry audiences, and anyway, most stagings now give the heroine wing-like arm movements all the time.

Bourmeister's more substantial change came in the ballroom scene, having all the national dances performed by Rothbart's creatures. That, too, has been much imitated, but never so well and effectively. He made Odette's seductive lookalike Odile appear repeatedly among them, and made her a lively, attractive girl rather than a heavy vamp, so the deception of Siegfried into betraying Odette becomes more plausible.

The whole of this act comes off well, even the jesters' dance (for once, actually funny) and the ladies who are presented in vain hope of catching Siegfried's interest. The setting, too, is far grander than we would expect on the Festival Hall stage; that made for inordinately long intervals on opening night, but the scene change has now been speeded up. The designs generally, by Vladimir Arefyev, are fine: much better looking than was described when Stanislavsky brought this Swan Lake to Paris in 1956, as the first Soviet company ever touring to the West.

The work is well danced, too. Let's put the corps de ballet first for once: the swans are admirably together with each other and with the music in their big ensemble scene, which follows traditional lines, and they make much of a simple sad walk offstage at the ballet's end. I was not so much taken by Bourmeister's choreography for them just before that – too much skipping about for its tragic context – but the spectacular flood that follows makes up for a lot, done with the slightest means. This is a company that works excellently as a team, and even the small roles are strongly cast: the women's solos in the first act are made much of, often by dancers who on other nights dance Odette or the Snow Maiden, and the men (prominently featured in the national dances) look good, too.

Three women are playing the ballerina role, and having seen them, all I can say is that you get good value whoever you catch. I thought Tatiana Tchernobrovkina, in the first cast, somewhat cool emotionally, but her dancing has beautiful strength and smoothness. Oxana Kuzmenko proves the most dramatic of the three, with an interesting (and to me, unprecedented) idea of showing surprise at Siegfried's interest in her as Odette, and a nice gloating smile at her accomplices when it is clear that Odile's wiles are succeeding. She has the best-looking and most involved Siegfried, too, in Victor Dik, but his alternates are nothing to complain about.

The remaining Odette-Odile, Natalia Krapivina, exceptionally pretty and perfectly proportioned, gives an attractively fetching interpretation, with a very warm smile much of the time. Jesters are not my favourite characters, but I'll make an exception for Denis Perkovsky's brilliant dancing and comedy.

All in all, we get far too many Swan Lakes, but this one is well worth seeing. Here for this week only, so don't delay.

Until 12 January, at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1; Box office: 020-7960 4242