Anna Karenina, Royal Opera House, London
Balanchine / Robbins Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, London
Swan Lake, Coliseum, London

Short score confines Tolstoy's great story to 85 tantalising minutes

As befits a story that more or less starts and finishes in a railway station, Alexei Ratmansky's new Anna Karenina fairly rattles along.

Large chunks of the novel are necessarily omitted – there is, sadly, no place for Levin's ruminations on the future of Russian agriculture – but so far as it deals with the relationship between Anna and Count Vronsky, the ballet could be used as clip notes.

Telling so much in such a short space – Rodion Shchedrin's airless score, written in 1972 for wife Maya Plisetskaya's version of Anna Karenina, is only 85 minutes long – calls for all Ratmansky's considerable incisive wit. Major events gallop past, including the horse race where Anna believes Vronsky has been killed – almost subliminally suggested by a back-projection of thundering hooves and a group of spectators vacating their chairs so dancers can jeté across the stage behind them, like thoroughbreds leaping fences.

The fluid switching of projections and props to make railway stations, trains, carriages, ballrooms and even bits of Venice will be familiar, if puzzling, to any follower of British provincial touring dance companies. It is as if those in charge of the Mariinsky's extraordinary legacy put their heads together in 2010 and wondered: "How can we be more like Northern Ballet Theatre?"

Under the pressure of recording events, Ratmansky's dances are astute rather than truly penetrating. There is rarely the impression, which occurs so often in the book, of character being laid bare at a stroke. Only Islom Baimuradov's Karenin – a hand-wringing pharisee of judgment and self-deception – and Diana Vishneva as Anna become fully three dimensional. Vishneva's Anna, if anything, is more compelling than Tolstoy's; a transfigured, sensual saint who finds only mortification where she expected ecstasy, and in the end convinces herself that there is no difference.

She has one duet with Yuri Smekalov's Vronsky, against a backdrop of trees in blossom, where Vishneva herself seems to open out, growing full and heavy with the possibility of happiness. Given what we know, it's heartbreaking, and if Ratmansky had found more time for moments like this he would have made a masterpiece.

Coincidentally, the Mariinsky's Balanchine/Robbins Triple Bill, earlier in the week, contained an even more condensed sweep across the gamut of romantic love. Set to three Chopin nocturnes, Jerome Robbins's In the Night presents three couples at a ball. Although their steps are pure ballet, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Filipp Stepin are in spirit Maria and Tony from Robbins's West Side Story; bewitched by each other and floating on air. Alina Somova and Yevgeny Ivanchenko are an older couple with appearances to maintain, which they do nobly right up until the climactic lift where he upends her, and her foot trembles as uncontrollably as Odette's when she surrenders to Siegfried in Swan Lake – a revelation so intimate you want to look away, but can't. The same effect lasts throughout Uliana Lopatkina's and Daniil Korsuntsev's duet, as they tear apart and collide against each other, inflicting new scars because the old ones no longer throb enough.

In contrast, Balanchine's closing Ballet Imperial had a frigid perfection: Viktoria Tereshkina's glittering ice princess declining to melt even as Vladimir Shklyarov's velvety, five-star-cognac partnering poured all over her. By then, Balanchine's misty-eyed treatment of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony was long-forgotten. Larded with tartan and hinting, with a touch of embarrassment, that at any moment it might become a jig, it journeyed too close for comfort to that well known Scottish landmark, the Brink of Twee.

No danger of prissiness or of over-refinement with the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China's Swan Lake. From the villain's first appearance, erupting like Alien from the guts of a giant swan, to the heroes' triumph, signified by Wu Zhengdan's princess standing on pointe, in arabesque, and slowly rotating on top of husband Wei Baohua's head, there are few signs of blushing understatement here. With a cast of contortionists, jugglers, synchronised frogs, transvestite cygnets, roller-skating swans and unicycling matadors, this is the world's most famous ballet as Lewis Carroll might have invented it after a few too many puffs on the caterpillar's pipe.

Next Week:

Clifford Bishop sees a ghost at National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion

Dance Choice

Rasta Thomas and his Bad Boys of Dance cheerfully alienate the purists as they try to win a new audience for ballet in their show, Rock the Ballet. Classical dance is mixed with acrobatics, martial arts and a fair dose of posing to a soundtrack that includes Michael Jackson, Prince and Coldplay. At the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh (to 28 Aug).

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