Glamour by the Ship Canal

Paris Opera Ballet | The Lowry, Salford
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The Independent Culture

Was it appropriate to bring in the world's most venerable dance company and a ballet conceived in Imperial Russia to launch Britain's most exciting new theatre building? If I had been among the 40,000 sightseers who flocked last weekend to view the curvaceous, steel mesh-clad Lowry arts complex, I'd have thought not.

Architect Michael Wilford's eye-catching £106m structure, straddling a panoramic stretch of the Manchester Ship Canal, sits there like some modernist platinum brooch in a jeweller's window, inviting dreams of a glamorous future, not the past. Step inside to explore its intriguing slopes and angles, its glittering waterside views, and your senses are blasted by colour. Forget Sanderson-range good taste. This is surface as sensory blow-out: sunflower, deep violet, and sizzling marigold orange. Every carpeted tread makes your heart sing. The walls are a hallelujah shout.

So why, for its grand opening, choose Paris Opera Ballet and La Bayadÿre? True, the company hasn't been seen in Britain for 16 years. And it's thrilling to see a classical outfit so distinctly different from our own. But wouldn't it have been just as big a scoop to get in William Forsythe or Pina Bausch?

Such thoughts arose before seeing this Bayadÿre - the 1993 production Rudolf Nureyev struggled to complete just before his death. Ten minutes in, all doubts dissolved. Petipa's grand effusion of classical style - famous for its acreage of gilded tutu, notorious for its ludicrous plot, its faux-oriental setting - is at bottom a fabulous celebration of life. And this in turn is filtered through Nureyev's own unique combination of refinement and flamboyance. Just to see the way he has his Nikiya and Solor, in their first pas de deux, bring their mouths so close - during the daringly slowed twirl of a pirouette, her head tilted just so - is to realise how the great sensualist himself lives on in this, his final legacy.

There is another more practical reason for bringing it to Salford. The Lowry's main stage is vast - the biggest in England outside the capital - and Nureyev's production gobbles every last inch of it, begging even a bit more from backstage. It's hard to think where else one could so enjoy Ezio Frigerio's gloriously capacious set designs, each new scene inspired by some aspect of the Taj Mahal - a massive ornately carved gateway as a temple; a lofty stained-glass conservatory to house Solor's opium dreams; a full-size elephant (on wheels) as a palace taxi.

And the colours! The task of costuming the endlessly different-hued choruses of fakirs, harem girls, parrot-bearers and general skirt-shakers must have cleaned out half the fabric mills in Asia. Even when the stage cleared, it was the palette that danced as much as bodies did. In the betrothal duet, a Solor clad in turquoise and yellow flits hummingbird-like around his princess whose purple-and-gold tutu, with scarlet underskirting, made her resemble some alluring hallucinogenic mushroom.

Petipa's 1874 original, as far as we can know from the versions still danced by the Bolshoi and Kirov companies, was a crazy bag of contrasts. In the last act, you get the cool, white-tutu'd control of the 32 ballerina ghosts. In Act II, a roll-call of circus freaks. With great skill, Nureyev tones down the potential Club Tropicana tendency but keeps in the chorus of Red Indians (yes, the Tsarist court's grasp of geography was that shaky) and, perhaps less advisedly, the blacked-up kiddies' chorus. Taken as a whole, though, it works.

The production's finer sensibilities are revealed in a Kingdom of the Shades sequence more streamlined and tightly executed than I have seen or even dreamt possible. The hall-of-mirrors effect of those 32 arabesqueing girls dipping, holding the balance, and descending the ramp in a snaking moonlit line, made me almost forget to breathe. Agnÿs Letestu's Nikiya too had an ethereal quality, the marked composure of her face and willowy limbs suggesting one who really would survive betrayal, followed by fatal snakebite, through sheer dignity of soul. But who wouldn't offer redemption to Jean-Guillaume Bart's Solor? At 29, and new to the role, he could have charmed the leaves from the tropical trees.

The final perfection was the playing of the Hallé Orchestra under Vello Pahn. How I wish we could more often persuade concert musicians into the ballet pit. They come so fresh to the scores.