As Zenit St Petersburg showed off its nifty footwork in Manchester, Russian steps of another kind were on display in neighbouring Salford. For the second time in five years, the Lowry scored by attracting the Kirov Ballet (the ballet of St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre), this time on the first leg of a two-week tour that sees the company's first appearance in Birmingham. A fortnight in England was all that this great ensemble could spare in its 225th season, squeezed between Italy, Spain and Austria, and missing out a summer visit to Covent Garden for the first time in eight years.
But though the Kirov's previous visit to the Lowry attracted capacity houses, both performances of Balanchine's glittering triptych Jewels were little more than half full. It may have been the hiked-up ticket prices rather than the prospect of 20th-century choreography that put people off. After all, in 2000 the Kirov had to add an extra matinée when it presented its newly acquired casket of gems for the first time in London. In Salford, tickets were scarcer for the gala programme that included Chopiniana, the heart-stopping Shades act from La Bayadère and a new version of Saint-Saëns's The Swan.
That Jewels is a plotless ballet may have been another minus point for the uninitiated, and that's a pity. Its three linked ballets are priceless reflections of the bracelets, pendants and tiaras in which Balanchine found inspiration for these bravura solos, exquisitely scaled duets and trios and finely chiselled unison patterns. Unlike the recent Royal Ballet premiere of Jewels, for which Jean-Marc Puissant created new designs, the Kirov remains faithful to Peter Harvey's 1967 single cabochon gemstone, suspended above the stage and lit in appropriate colours for each jewel, first green, then red, then white. Barbara Karinska's original dazzling costumes, made for the New York City Ballet premiere, have been recreated.
George Balanchine, though Russian by birth, is not part of the Kirov's tradition, which may be why the third and last section, "Diamonds", his nostalgic homage to the old world of St Petersburg, proves by far the most satisfying. A tribute to classical Russian style, it glistens with imperial opulence, and Alina Somova and Evgeny Ivanchenko take your breath away in the grand pas de deux. The corps shows off the fluidity of the work's classical inspiration while making the interwoven complexities of the final fugal polonaise appear deceptively simple. Any weakness in the scope of the choreography stems from the music: four movements from Tchaikovsky's Third "Polish" Symphony, one of his lesser regarded orchestral works, though, unencumbered by any balletic baggage, clearly attractive to Balanchine.
As a cheer-inducing finale, "Diamonds" could hardly be bettered. Nor could it present a greater contrast to "Emeralds". In this quietly subtle opener, to the strains of a selection of music by Fauré, the dancers seem to float, the delicate formations of the corps as enchanting as the dialogue between the principals' solos and the music.
It is quite a crescendo of energy from the pastoral green of "Emeralds" to the heat of the central "Rubies". Here, to Stravinsky's spiky Capriccio for piano and orchestra, the scarlet glass ornamentation swinging from the costumes adds its own percussive element. Olesya Novikova and Anton Korsakov lead the capers in Balanchine's jaunty nod to Broadway, with Ekaterina Kondaurova on buoyant form. The ray-like spokes of the dancers' limbs create endless radial patterns and seldom can synchronised walking have been so compelling to watch. Yet, with its exposed entries and fractured syncopations, "Rubies" is the section that sits least confidently on these dancers. Even so, anyone within reach of Birmingham's Hippodrome this week, should catch a glimpse of this fascinating collection.
Jewels may have been inspired by the displays of the Fifth Avenue jeweller Van Cleef and Arpels, but even without the glorious Uliana Lopatkina, who was advertised for these performances but did not appear, in the Kirov's hands it is far more than window dressing.
Birmingham Hippodrome (0844 338 5000) Tuesday to Saturday