Kirov: The Rite Of Spring

When even the Shades dazzle
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A jammed front curtain sabotaged Act II of the Kirov Ballet's first London Rite of Spring. Chaos ensued: stage tabs down, music halted, house lights on, a long pause, the music eventually starting again with a long repeat, but nothing to watch until we reached the same point. Generous applause was the audience response.

Full marks for courage; but the ballet fared less well. This Rite looks great in Kenneth Archer's reconstruction of the 1913 designs by Nicholas Roerich, and Stravinsky's music is played with weight under Mikhail Agrest's direction. So much so, in fact, that it draws attention to the lack of weight in Millicent Hodson's attempted evocation of Nijinsky's original choreography.

Having only incomplete documentation to work from, she had to guess at the gaps, and you can't second-guess a man who worked by eccentric genius rather than logic. So it's interesting to be given some idea of Nijinsky's ideas, but the outcome doesn't match his greatness. The many jumps are disconcertingly light, and the stage patterns often stolid, although Yulia Makhalina brings intensity to her playing of the Chosen Maiden.

This production is part of a disparate programme, aptly billed as Contrasts. First, Balanchine's Serenade: created in 1934, it foreshadowed his lifelong interest in pure dance ballets, and is one of the greatest. The dances evoke the emotion in Tchaikovsky's music, and the dancers perform it accordingly; led by Natalia Sologub, Irina Golub and Daniil Korsuntev, the ensembles have both beauty and drama.

The drama in the evening's last ballet, Etudes, comes entirely from its dancers.To an exciting instrumental arrangement by Knudage Riisager of Czerny's famous piano exercises, its choreographer Harald Lander orchestrated all the cumulative excitement of ballet's classroom exercises.

It is many years since we saw such virtuosi in the two leading male roles. Andrian Fadeyev and Leonid Sarafanov are superbly matched, tearing from one demanding solo to another. Svetlana Zakharova's technique glitters in the ballerina role. And the whole large cast lives up to that trio. Through sequences that stretch, bounce, leap and turn, they are dazzling.

Even better is the Kirov's new reconstruction of La Bayadère, which at last reveals the full worth of Petipa's 1900 production. Strange to think that in the 1920s Anna Pavlova abandoned a proposed revival because she thought it old fashioned, and that in 1947 Mona Inglesby didn't persevere with a production for her London-based International Ballet when the second-hand designs fell apart at the dress rehearsal.

So it was left to the Kirov in 1961 to bowl us over with the "Shades" scene for the corps de ballet - probably the greatest choreographic ensemble ever - and later to show a modernised version of the whole work. That was good, but this is better. Sergei Vikharev's revisions, based on old documentation, throw out some ill-matched modern additions, put back many missing episodes, and, vitally, return to the original running order, complete with climactically theatrical finale.

The ballet now builds steadily from lyrical opening through strong drama, brilliant display dances and great massed scenes. The result is that the old story of love, rivalry, death and retribution in ancient India makes sense throughout, becoming timeless and universal.

Every moment counts. Even at nearly four hours, this has none of the longueurs that mar most recent long ballets. The settings and costumes are overwhelming. As for performance, all honour first to the corps de ballet. The women make their mark right from the beginning, with the unusual steps of the first number of the bayadères (temple dancers); and their big Shades scene, in which 32 ghostly spirits descend the rocky Himalayan slopes in a sequence of arabesques, has never looked better. But the male ensemble is fine, too - the Rajah's guards contribute some particularly stylish byplay.

The company brought three leading couples, all entirely reputable, although none up to the best we've seen before. Daria Pavlenko was good all-round as Nikiya. As Solor, Igor Kolb was the most heart-felt, Leonid Sarafanov the most brilliant, and Andrian Fadeyev showed the best balance of gifts. And the enchanting Manu dance with a water jug, never seen here before, was especially welcome.

Also benefiting from the revisions is the composer, the often maligned Ludwig Minkus. Heard in its intended order and context, his music's tunefulness, danceable quality and relevance become clear; the more so, given the Maryinsky orchestra's spirited playing under Mikhail Sinkevich's terpsichorean conducting. Any snobs who continue to sneer at Minkus must be deaf or daft.

The Kirov season runs to Saturday (020-7304 4000)