Kirov Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

Kirov and London â¿“ the start of a beautiful affair
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The Independent Culture

When Spice Girls and footballers start showing up to watch the Kirov (discreetly, as they do, from the box nearest to the royal one), you know the word is out. The dancing is fabulous. The productions are superb. And you don't have to be an anorak to get the kind of buzz that sends you leaping to your feet and yelping through the curtain calls. You got the message too late? Tough. The dancers return to St Petersburg now, to make way for the opera contingent. But they'll be back. On the strength of the past four weeks, this has to be an annual fixture. London loves the Kirov, the Kirov loves London audiences. The affair should run and run.

So how does this year's showing compare to last year's, or 1997's, or the rather creaky Nutcracker season in 1996? Put it this way, if you could plot confidence, versatility and technical aplomb on a graph, the incline would look like a girl's leg in a typical Kirov grand battement – that's steep. This is largely thanks to Makhar Vaziev, since 1995 the company's visionary director, who seems to have pulled off the unlikeliest trick of keeping what was great about this venerable, once-crumbling institution, while transforming its scope to a degree that seems less of a nod to Glasnost, more a beneficent Revolution.

The new outlook was never more brilliantly evident than in Monday's Balanchine bill – ballets widely danced by companies around the world, yet all three new to the Kirov. Despite being Russian by birth, Mr B made almost all his work in America. Only now is the Kirov feeling sufficiently bullish to reclaim him, bending that unmatchable old-world academic technique into his sometimes fierce new shapes. We're only talking 1940s and 1950s here, but the difference is dramatic.

The Tchaikovsky Serenade looks gorgeously easy on these dancers. Some companies get hung up on what it all might mean – that curious "Dark Angel", that army of militant women. Balanchine claimed it was all simply a vehicle for dancing, and the Kirov take him at his word, threading their macramé webs across the stage with apparently effortless precision.

Apollo – set to Stravinsky – is a more complex dramatic challenge, with its weird, stark central role unaided by anything so prosaic as a plot, yet charged with showing the Greek god's progress from swaddled babe to lord of enlightenment in measurable stages. Igor Zelensky has the big physique, and the golden looks. But going by the bored, kick-a-can performances he has sometimes turned in as a classical prince, you'd think his acting wouldn't be up to it. But you'd be wrong. Zelensky has awesome authority as Apollo, connecting with his muse via a single outstretched finger like God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel, supporting her airborne swimming sessions on the flat of his neck like a Colossus.

That bigness of spirit, achieved through finesse, is the single defining quality of the starriest Kirov dancers. And the chief joy of this season has been the chance to stargaze in so many different settings.

Twenty-three-year-old Veronika Part is a radiant, luscious Terpsichore (think young Elizabeth Taylor and a plateful of blueberries and cream). Fragile Janna Ayupova drifting like a whisper through the moonlit glades of Chopiniana. The barnstorming exoticism of Faroukh Ruzimatov as Sheherazade's Golden Slave (sexy isn't in it). And, most glorious of all, Uliana Lopatkina, whose imperial grandeur –at 27! - in everything she danced made a hyper-sensual connection with a rich and perfumed world I believed lost for ever.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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