Kirov Ballet: Balanchine, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

La Valse is a ballroom drama, the women in gauzy ball-dresses with long gloves. Three of them, like fates, fold hands and arms in curling patterns. The heroine falls in love and dies - both by waltzing. When the figure of death comes to claim her, he gives her black gloves and leads her into another, darker dance.

You can see Balanchine responding to the lurid qualities of his Ravel scores - La Valse itself, plus Valses nobles et sentimentales. The patterning is still a marvel, but here the drama never becomes urgent, and it all looks very 1950s. The three women wave gloved arms too conscientiously, and the dancers don't abandon themselves to the ballroom rhythms. Uliana Lopatkina makes a frosty heroine.

Prodigal Son should have more impact than this. Balanchine tells the biblical story in images that have the force of icons. The Prodigal rebels against his father with bounding vigour. The Siren seduces the boy in a dance at once stylised and explicit. She winds her legs acrobatically around him, cold and cruel and archaic.

Daria Pavlenko's Siren registers when she waits, coolly watching. The dance itself doesn't have the same force; the timing is off. In the first scene, Andrei Merkuriev's Prodigal finishes his phrases with a snap, pulling away to the outside world. He shows each stage of the hero's humiliation. It's intelligent and athletic, but the staging doesn't come fully to life.

Ballet Imperial, danced to Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto, is pure dance at its grandest. At one point, the ballerina and her cavalier circle the stage, the corps framing them in a diamond pattern. As the royal couple pass, the corps bow - line by line, dignified and gracious. The last line of bows comes later than you expect, because they wait until the ballerina turns to them. That delay makes the courtesy personal, and it catches the last sweep of the musical phrase.

Balanchine sets up patterns, changes them, creates worlds with them. His corps and soloists canter down avenues, form groves and squares, wind into dazzling chains of movement. The speed and musical precision of this choreography are still new to the Kirov. The corps put greater stretch into their arabesques, and those swirling designs are utterly exhilarating.

Diana Vishneva dances the ballerina role with pride and confidence. The dance isn't always in focus - I want bolder contrasts between positions - but she moves with real scale. Igor Zelensky is a dull cavalier, but Ekaterina Osmolkina gives a blithe performance as the second ballerina.