Kirov Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

Little joy for this wedding party
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Although she spent most of her career abroad, Bronislava Nijinska was one of the Maryinsky Theatre's most gifted daughters, and it was high time the Kirov Ballet performed one of her works. This has at last arrived in the form of Les Noces, created for Serge Diaghilev's itinerant Russian Ballet in June 1923 and given its Maryinsky premiere last month, almost exactly 80 years later.

It is one of the last century's greatest ballets, bringing together four geniuses as its producer, choreographer, composer and designer. Stravinsky's music was 10 years in the making, and underwent many changes before reaching its austere solution of solo singers, chorus, percussion and four pianos. But its basic concept remained: the stylised depiction of a peasant wedding derived from the words of folk songs: a masterly score, distinctive, full of life and deeply moving.

Those same adjectives apply equally to Nijinska's dances, the perfect realisation of the music. The leading parts (bride, groom and parents) are mostly static, calling on personalities, not technique; the actual festivities devolve on the guests, a large ensemble who undertake preparation, celebration and final joy. Their roles are the physically demanding, and meaningful, ones.

With Natalia Goncharova's designs, you have the ideal staging: simple walls at the back, just a window, bench or door, everyone clothed alike in brown-and-white dresses or tunics that convey a timeless evocation of Russian working life. This ballet is a wonder. There's only one problem: the Kirov doesn't do it well enough.

The staging is by Howard Sayette, who learned it as the ballet master of a hardly known, small American company, the Oakland Ballet, from Nijinska's daughter, Irina. Remembering Nijinska's own wonderful 1966 production for the Royal Ballet, we see many differences of detail here but, more damaging, a complete change of mood, quite lacking the weight and the sharpness that she (with abundant rehearsal time) won from that company at its peak.

The outcome is prettified and decorative - which is not the point. The principal roles work moderately well, although they could all take more depth. It's the vitally important ensemble that suffers most. The dancers are adept at their steps, but the control, the energy, and the significance of what they are doing has been allowed to escape them.

For some bizarre reason, the first and last episodes both end in very dim lighting. Even the music disappoints, the vaunted singers from the Maryinsky Opera sounding subdued. Have they been badly placed in the orchestra pit, or do they need miking?

If you don't already know Les Noces from performances either on stage or on television, this might give you some idea of it. But for the ballet's many admirers, it's a jolt. As a tribute to Diaghilev, the master producer who brought together the original creative team, the Kirov gives it as the centerpiece of a triple bill with two other ballets from their repertoire that were also in his. Curiously, or perhaps inevitably, none of them is just as he knew them.

I think the Kirov's open-air setting for Chopiniana suits the ballet. It improves on the Benois ruins for Diaghilev's revival ofLes Sylphides, upon which the Kirov's version is based, and their alternative Fokine version of the man's solo is preferable. The choreographic staging, attributed to Vaganova, differs in many details from what Fokine taught, but catches the ballet's mood and shows off the Kirov corps excellently. The solos (except for Daria Sukhorukova's jerky mazurka) were good, especially Irina Golub in the prelude.

The Kirov's Schéhérazade is immensely popular. Personally I find the "reconstruction" of Fokine's choreography by Andris Liepa and Isabelle Fokine trashy compared with the original. Igor Petrov's Chief Eunuch is a silly parody of what that role can be, and Vladimir Ponomarev's Shah Shakhriar is bloodless. Faroukh Ruzimatov as the Golden Slave still has a little of his old power and glamour, but Svetlana Zakharova's skinny, self-conscious Zobeide desperately needs to be - what's that phrase? - sexed up.

With any luck, later performances will not share the first night's inordinate intermissions which led, understandably, to a slow handclap.

Kirov Ballet is at the Royal Opera House to 9 August (020-7304 4000)