Manon, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

The Kirov may have enlarged their dancing experience with George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, John Neumeier and other Western choreographers, but taking on Kenneth MacMillan was a whole new ball game. Our eyes are used to it, but the MacMillan style is where classical forms break down and extend into ornate, organic shapes and expressionistic statements, where the narrative depends on a distinctly English naturalistic approach to acting. Watching Russian performers trying to fit into that mould reveals just how far apart they are from us, further than they are from American ballet.

The choice of MacMillan's Manon, made in 1974 for the Royal Ballet and staged last year in St Petersburg, has provoked some envy in the Bolshoi Ballet. After all, Manon is an ideal story ­ sex, tears and period costuming ­ and has proved hugely popular, performed by countless companies round the world. Yet, to my mind, it is an inferior example of the MacMillan canon, a creaky three-act trudge, unsubtle in its storytelling and only just redeemed by a series of daringly inventive pas de deux.

I don't suppose the Kirov's dancers are absolute angels off-stage, but it comes as something of a shock to see these refined-looking performers enacting 18th-century decadence as leering gentlemen and half-dressed whores. Peter Farmer's designs, made for the Houston Ballet's production, are also unfamiliar, since we have been brought up on Nicholas Georgiadis's for the Royal Ballet. Where Georgiadis is emblematic and elliptical, Farmer is ultra-conventionally realistic, so that for all its visual attractiveness, the production now recalls any number of narrative ballets.

But the Russianness of the dancing strikes an outlandish note, a richness of movement allied with a transparent clarity. MacMillan's configurations stand out vividly as never before, whether in the first-act beggar ensemble led by the excellent Anton Luvokin, or in Manon's dancing, in which Svetlana Zakharova twirls on one leg as if it was easier than on two.

And yet, she and Ilya Kuznetsov's Des Grieux seemed sometimes to grapple awkwardly with the unorthodox angles of the pas de deux. Kuznetsov lacked the singing legato that Anthony Dowell imprinted on Des Grieux's solos, danced poems that yearn and plead. His acting was weak, so that Des Grieux became even more of a wimp than usual.

Zakharova seemed ideal for Manon, with her delicate, serene features and deceptively sweet smile. But as the story plunges into darker territory, it seemed that any variation of facial expression was merely pinned on, and that nothing came from the heart. Maxim Khrebtov was not forceful enough as Lescaut, while Natalia Sologub as his mistress did not appear to believe in her extravagant postures. But Alexander Kurkov's lecherous Monsieur GM nibbled at Manon's legs with the hunger of a man eating a chicken drumstick, because that is what the ballet requires.

'Manon' ends tonight (020-7304 4000). Season ends 7 July

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