Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet, Coliseum, London

From ball to tomb in under two hours, these star-crossed lovers scorch their trail
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The Independent Culture

As Prefab Sprout once sang, all the world loves lovers.

Which is why the casting of Natalia Osipova, 25, and Ivan Vasiliev, 22, arguably the most thrilling young dancers on the planet and unarguably engaged to be married, was the main draw of the week's big dance event rather than the fact that Sir Frederick Ashton's distinctive version of Romeo and Juliet hadn't been seen since 1985.

London audiences have gone bananas over Osipova and Vasiliev during recent summer visits from the Bolshoi. His was the most macho, most passionate, most lionised Spartacus in years, her Kitri in Don Q the most fizzing, her Giselle the most sublime. Rarely are they cast together, though, her long willowy line making a natural match with taller partners. Now, for nine performances only, thanks to canny planning by Denmark's Peter Schaufuss Ballet, they have been able to share the same dressing room. It's a mismatch nonetheless: not the lovers with each other – they're so hot they all but simultaneously combust – but a mismatch of two fiery Russians and an Englishman's choreography, with all its fastidious detail and lyrical restraint.

Ashton's Romeo and Juliet was created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955, just a year before the Bolshoi made its stupendous Western debut with Leonid Lavrovsky's version, whose grand scale set the tone for most later attempts, including Kenneth MacMillan's, the one best known to British audiences. This revival is by Peter Schaufuss, the son of Ashton's original Juliet and Mercutio and a beneficiary of Ashton's will, which left him the performing rights to R&J. Last year, Schaufuss toured a cut-down version to Danish theatres, and this seems to be what he has brought to the giant London Coliseum. It's both smaller and briefer than the venue demands: from ball to tomb in well under two hours.

This is a Verona of empty piazzas and quickly controlled street brawls, there being only ever 10 people, max, on stage. More disconcerting is the sparse design: a set of steps flanked by illuminated columns, more Odeon cinema than medieval Italy, with black-and-white photos of city roofscapes projected on the back wall, and occasionally – yuck – red rose petals. Ashton's choreography is far too specifically period itself to be stripped of place and time this way, and far too subtle for Hallmark card solecisms. Worse still is the patchy lighting that, presumably in an attempt at dappled moodiness, casts shadows over dancers' faces at moments when we most need to see them. Funny thing, lighting. You only really notice it when it's bad.

These gripes aside, there is merit in the way this R&J tightens the focus on the lovers: no tedious choruses of skirt-flapping harlots to sit through, and both the marathon mandolin dance and Juliet's tiptoeing friends are gone. There's no hanging about at the Capulet ball, either. Romeo is no sooner through the door than he's whisked the host's daughter into a private nook, only to be set upon by Johan Christensen's bleach-blond goth of a Tybalt, a genuinely frightening psychopath and vicious swordsman. His noisy death-roll down those steps is horribly satisfying.

But the night, for all its compromise, belongs to Vasiliev and Osipova, he a Byronic Romeo with his wild curls and Soyuz-powered jump, she an impetuous teen who skitters through Ashton's embroidered steps as if racing to her death. You can see both trying to adapt their big Bolshoi techniques to Ashton's more intimate vision. Sometimes they get it, mostly they don't. But the attempt makes mesmerising watching.

Last performance today (0871 911 0200)

Next Week:

Clifford Bishop shakes his tail feathers at the return of Fela!

Dance Choice

English National Ballet revives the work of the French choreographic legend Roland Petit, who died last week. Rarely staged in Britain, ENB presents Petit's famously steamy Carmen (pictured above), created for his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire, plus the existentialist Le jeune homme et la mort, and l'Arlésienne. At the London Coliseum (Thu to Sun).