Names change, but glamour lingers. The Mariinsky Ballet, formerly the Kirov, has a powerful mystique. This St Petersburg company, and its school, produced so many of 20th-century ballet's biggest stars: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov. As the company moves into the 21st century, its visits to the West are still eagerly awaited.
The Mariinsky's forthcoming London season looks recession-proof. This is a safe programme, dominated by blockbusters: Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty. The only mixed bill celebrates Balanchine, with three popular works that have been in Mariinsky's repertory for a while. Advance excitement is less for what they're dancing than for the company itself.
There's particular interest in two young dancers, Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov, who dance Juliet and Romeo on opening night. Both are being promoted as rising stars. Shklyarov is a long-limbed dancer with a clear, high jump and a smooth sense of style. Somova has proved more controversial: tall, thin and blond, she's fond of extreme poses, with sky-high leg extensions. The season also includes established stars such as Uliana Lopatkina, the Mariinsky's reigning diva, whose soul-of-Russia demeanour has won her a huge fan base. The summer season isn't selling new works or risks; even The Sleeping Beauty is the Kirov's standard production, rather than the lavish, curious reconstruction of the 1890 original. This is a chance to see where the company is now. How is it treating all that inherited mystique? Has it kept its vaunted style?
For many, the Mariinsky symbolises ballet's grand past. This was the company where The Sleeping Beauty was created, the home of Swan Lake. In the 20th century, dancers from St Petersburg helped to repopularise ballet across the world. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes brought the art form back into fashion, bringing music by Stravinsky, designs by Bakst and Benois – and choreographers and dancers from the Mariinsky. Pavlova's world tours created a lasting, global image of the ballerina: a dying swan, trained in St Petersburg . Most Western companies cherish links with the imperial Russian past, through repertory, teaching and inspiration.
After the Russian Revolution, ballet became a flagship of the Soviet state. Money and prestige were poured into the two main ballet companies, the Mariinsky – renamed the Kirov – and the Bolshoi. New choreography was limited by political repression, but the schooling continued. Where the Bolshoi became known for its gusto, the Kirov was celebrated for its elegance, its classical purity. It produced huge personalities, but was also celebrated for the rigour of its corps de ballet.
Western tours cemented the Kirov's glamour and reputation abroad – but also lost it major stars. Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov all fled for the greater artistic freedom. You can see why the world was bowled over in a 1983 film of Giselle. The corps de ballet are magnificent. Backs are strong and pliant, heads carried high on long necks. As the wilis, vengeful ghostly women, they have a steely assurance and power. Hopping in arabesque, they look unstoppable: the pose is held firm by the strength of those Russian backs.
Lavish Soviet support came to an end with the USSR , leaving the Kirov facing an uncertain future. Just as Leningrad became St Petersburg again, the company returned to its old imperial name – though Western audiences still cling to the old Kirov brand. And Western money was desperately needed. Dancers were tempted away from the company, guesting abroad or leaving altogether.
By the 1990s, the management, too, was looking abroad. Director Oleg Vinogradov was bowled over by the Parisian star Sylvie Guillem – tall, exceptionally flexible – and decided that he wanted dancers like her. Suddenly, the company's ranks were filled with taller women, such as Uliana Lopatkina or Yulia Makhalina. Legs were lifted higher and higher.
Any style can be pushed to extremes, a signature becoming a trick. Lopatkina can be dangerously diva-ish. She holds her chin perilously high, unfolding long limbs with exaggerated slowness. (In Swan Lake, she's brought Tchaikovsky almost to a standstill.) Her arched Russian back can look affected instead of strong. She's a star, no question: the strong personality is unmistakable, and has won her an international audience. She's also a reminder that Mariinsky style can become mannered instead of pure.
After decades of artistic isolation, the company also started to take on Western choreography, tackling works by Balanchine and Forsythe. In this new repertory, they can be thrilling. Balanchine trained at the Mariinsky before choosing Western exile. Company and choreographer have shared roots, and it's fascinating to see the dancers discovering them. It can bring out their real grandeur. As they whirled through the patterns of Balanchine's Ballet Imperial, you could see the Mariinsky's technical strength, how this corps won its mystique. Nobody struggled with those fast, demanding steps: all their energy went into the scale and energy of the dancing.
The Mariinsky currently comes under the control of conductor Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the entire theatre and its opera and ballet companies. The ballet has its own deputy ballet director, Yury Fateyev, who replaced Makhar Vaziev after clashes with Gergiev. There have been other signs of the star conductor's high-handedness with his ballet company, such as the time Gergiev enforced a last-minute switch of choreographers on a new production of The Golden Age. The Mariinsky Ballet's direction, its way into the 21st century, isn't yet clear.
With its blockbusting repertory, this London season won't show us a new path for one of the world's most famous ballet companies. But it will present another aspect of its future: its up-and-coming dancers. The Mariinsky still draws on its own school, the Vaganova Academy, now under the direction of former ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova. Where most Western companies have become more diverse, taking dancers from all over the world, Mariinsky dancers are more likely to share a background, a training from one of the world's most prestigious academies. There's interest in the young dancers, buzz about rising stars such as Somova and Shklyarov. A new generation is aiming to carry on the Mariinsky's mystique.
The Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House, London WC2, 3-15 August (020-7304 4000)