Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, Royal Festival Hall, London

They brought the house down (and the walls)
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Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet

Whoever decided that the Festival Hall would make a good venue for ballet must have been some kind of sadist. Each New Year, for as long as most people can remember, some large-scale production or other has shoe-horned itself onto that miserable runway of a stage, a feat that may require the rebuilding of entire sets, or the construction of an elaborate apron-extension, only to have it pulled down three weeks later.

Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet, making its first visit to Britain, was clearly still reeling from shock when it opened its Swan Lake last week. Your heart went out to these gutsy Russians, soldiering on while technical glitches threatened to turn tragedy into farce. First the curtain stuck halfway across the stage, dithered, and retreated whence it had come. Palace walls juddered in the tailwind of passing party guests and lines of swans had almost to dance on the spot to avoid bottlenecks, as if observing some variable speed restriction flashing overhead.

Eccentric designs and make-up combined to increase the urge to titter: Georgy Smilevski's Siegfried wore so much slap on opening night he looked like a witch, while Vladimir Kirilov's Rothbart was rendered almost immobile by 15ft wings which at full stretch – as he glowered from a rocky crag – put one in mind of a pylon. However, it takes only a small shift of perspective to realise that the gulf of theatrical taste between Russian and British audiences is a point of interest in itself. Russians cherish their old productions of the classics (this one, by Vladimir Bourmeister, has been current for half a century) and therefore the stylistic traditions that went with them. British companies feel compelled to keep devising new Swan Lakes, adjusting the aesthetic as fashion dictates. Once you clock this cultural difference, what might have seemed arch begins to look like charm.

I have always professed a violent allergy to jesters, but Vitaly Breusenko's muscular antics never grew tiresome, only funnier and more spectacular as the story progressed, climaxing in a riotous dance in which he clinked glasses with a line-up of party guests while executing fiendish hops and twirls along the row. Other innovations included a showcase solo for Prince Siegfried with his new crossbow (which made it almost a duet, it was so hefty), plus extra sequences for the comic cygnets – immaculately danced by four girls so well matched you wondered if they went around together permanently linked.

The most memorable images came from the company rather than individuals. I have rarely seen a more cohesive flock of swans, who at one point uncommonly turn a balance full-face so that they resemble a row of white daisies each on a slender stalk. And I loved the red-blooded attack of the national dances in Act III, a riot of flashing eyes and clicking heels whose abandon makes the Royal Ballet's look insipid.

Bourmeister's most inspired idea in this production is to have Rothbart conjure all these national dances from his own entourage, which gives the whole sequence a glint of seductive wickedness, as well as a reason for happening. Allowing flashing glimpses of Odile in the course of these dances then supplies a convincing reason for Siegfried's confusion and betrayal. It all works beautifully, powered by the vivacious tempi taken by the Stanislavsky orchestra – whose playing throughout is wonderfully strong and true.

The moral of the tale is that it's risky to judge a show by its first night – especially given that in ballet there are no trial runs, no previews. The Stanislavsky dancers quickly recovered from their opening ordeal; the technical mishaps didn't recur. Later casts, too, yielded more interesting partnerships. Tatiana Tchernobrovkina, an aloof if gorgeous Odette on first night, blossomed later in the week when cast against her own husband as Siegfried. The first Siegfried, Georgy Smilevski – whose maniacal smiling may have been his way of dealing with disaster – came into his own when cast opposite his spouse, Natalia Krapivina, a warm, secure and convincingly captivating swan.

Easy to see how one could get hooked, and turn into one of those geeks who turns up to every show. Even as venerable a construct as a 50-year-old production of Swan Lake can spring surprises. Which is of course what live performance is all about.