No ballet lover will need reminding that the Russians are back in town. And, as ever, they're pushing up the benchmark of excellence by several notches. What's new is that this isn't exclusively in the Russian classics department. The Kirov is developing a taste for American and British choreography. Out go the creaky Soviet productions. In come programmes of Balanchine and MacMillan – familiar to British ballet fans via the Royal Ballet and visiting New Yorkers, yet imbued with a sensibility that has "St Petersburg" stamped through the middle. This has its pros and cons.
This time last week, it seemed nothing could match the opening spectacle of the newly restored Sleeping Beauty – a four-hour pageant of the most exuberant classical dancing London has ever seen at one sitting. But Jewels, the Balanchine programme that followed, runs it a close second for technical brilliance. Made in New York in 1967, Jewels lays claim to being the first ever full-length abstract ballet. This is dance about dancing, nothing else. Yet of course, it's also about time and place and style. And that's what makes the Russians' take on it fascinating.
"Emeralds", the first act, is a study in French Romanticism, a green thought in a green shade set to music by Fauré at his most unemphatic. It's easy on the eye and low on excitement: better, in fact, in the memory, when it sits in enigmatic contrast to the fireworks of "Rubies" and "Diamonds". Janna Ayopova as "Emerald"'s lead ballerina is the perfect sylph: wispy, serene, wafting on a cushion of air apparently inches above the stage. The patterns made by the corps float gorgeously in and out of focus. But the dreamy quality these dancers cultivate is shattered by the noise of their feet. Clackety, clackety clack. A result, I understand, of the special construction of Russian toe shoes. With the Kirov's new-found openness to change, perhaps they should re-educate their supplier.
"Rubies" follows on like a thunderbolt – and amid the brilliant retorts of Stravinsky's Capriccio you'd be hard put to hear an elephant in clogs. "Rubies" is one of Balanchine's big Broadway numbers, skewing the body into jazzy tilts and thrusts. The Russians may not have much of a feel for showgirl hoofing, or for jogging in Central Park (a witty motif for the men, which the Kirov completely blanked) but they go full-pelt for the athleticism. Diana Vishneva – a bundle of superhuman energy, and the Kirov's greatest single asset – launches into the spunky diagonals of the choreography with a verve that makes New York City Ballet look sluggish.
Did I say greatest asset? Whenever you plump for a favourite dancer, you remember another just as wonderful. Uliana Lopatkina, Vishneva's polar opposite in terms of legginess and slow-unfurling grandeur, proves the ultimate interpreter of "Diamonds", Balanchine's nod to high Russian classicism set to two movements of Tchaikovsky's third symphony. Igor Zelensky, always an elegant and attentive partner, adds a new edge of forcefulness to his dancing. The classical fireworks finale from the corps is ecstatic. Exit one happy audience, hoarse from cheering.
I was less thrilled by the Kirov's first stab at Kenneth MacMillan, even though the dancing was for the most part flawless. A MacMillan ballet is about much more than executing steps, and although the choreographer himself longed for his work to be done by a Russian company, it's hard now to see why. The Kirov just don't get it.
Manon, made for the Royal Ballet in 1974, is ostensibly the story of Manon Lescaut. The Kirov dancers clearly relish getting their teeth into a narrative involving sex, cheating at cards and pistols. What they have failed to grasp is the way the steps in a MacMillan ballet actually contain the story and the psychological insights. Character isn't pasted on top, it's part of the fabric.
Svetlana Zakharova looks the very picture of a Manon – sloe-eyed and pretty, with a body so pliable that not even the most daring contortions seem to cause her any effort. What she lacks is complexity. We don't once believe Manon is torn over her weakness for old roués proffering diamonds and her love for a poor student. And he, as danced by Ilya Kuznetsov, hams up his passion so ludicrously that you wonder why she wants him anyway. Dull designs, by Peter Farmer, merely endorse the 19th-century mindset that favours dance numbers over through-composed drama. The Royal Ballet can rest easy – for the moment.
The Kirov season continues at the Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 7 JulyReuse content