Ballet Stars of St Petersburg, Royal Albert Hall, London, **

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The Independent Culture

We've often been here before: commercially minded Russian ballet dancers trading on the highly exportable status of their art with a pick'n'mix of family favourites. But hell, why be a killjoy. It sounded a classier, two-night operation that included little-known modern items among the 19th-century warhorses, and some of the cream of Russian ballet, even if, strictly speaking, Nikolai Tsiskaridze is more Moscow (Bolshoi Ballet) than St Petersburg, and two announced names didn't materialise. At least a stage was being erected to quash protestations about ballet in the round. And it was an event marking the 300th anniversary of one of the world's most beautiful cities.

We've often been here before: commercially minded Russian ballet dancers trading on the highly exportable status of their art with a pick'n'mix of family favourites. But hell, why be a killjoy. It sounded a classier, two-night operation that included little-known modern items among the 19th-century warhorses, and some of the cream of Russian ballet, even if, strictly speaking, Nikolai Tsiskaridze is more Moscow (Bolshoi Ballet) than St Petersburg, and two announced names didn't materialise. At least a stage was being erected to quash protestations about ballet in the round. And it was an event marking the 300th anniversary of one of the world's most beautiful cities.

That was what the publicity said, until the opening ballet suggested another perspective. Madam Lioneli, commissioned in April from the young Kirov choreographer Kirill Simonov, was a blatant vehicle for the Kirov's Irma Nioradze, whose talents were also prominent in the rest of the programme, and whose husband was one of the backers. The name Madam Lioneli may or may not have a special significance, but the role certainly puts Nioradze to the fore, as the only woman among submissive men in an office setting – not one of the most glamorous subjects for a ballet. Nioradze, coldly elegant in her business suit, stalks about as office boss, extends her long, thin legs against the high-rise architecture of Igor Chapurin's backdrop, and spurns Ilya Kuznetsov with a flick of her hand (he later gets his revenge).

Taped music gave way after the interval to the Russian Orchestra of London. Their live music was welcome, although their position at the back of the stage confused the eye, blurring the dance's outlines. Nioradze and Farouk Ruzimatov both smouldered through the overblown eroticism of the pas de deux from Sheherazade. Yulia Makhalina and Kuznet-sov tried to summon up the grandeur of Raymonda in a cut-and-paste version of the final pas de deux.

Igor Zelensky would have ripped through the jump solos of Le Corsaire pas de deux if the stage's size hadn't restricted him. He partnered the young, tall Irina Perren. Tsiskaridze, who always gives 100 per cent, presented Narcissus, a solo by the experimental Soviet choreographer Kasian Golizowsky. Before that he had danced part of another Soviet-era ballet with Nioradze, Legend of Love.

It's not just that, out of context, such extracts become tawdrily meaningless, but that this monotonous, interminable alternation of empty solos and pas de deux leaves you with severe indigestion. These wonderful dancers deserved a better setting.

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