Surprised by joy and lyricism

Kirov Ballet | Covent Garden, London
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The Independent Culture

The theory used to be that applause was inappropriate between the numbers of Les Sophides, for fear of disturbing the atmosphere. The Kirov Ballet's performance of this work, given under its original title, Chopiniana, triumphantly proves that wrong. Only a curmudgeon could refrain from clapping solos and duets as marvellously danced as they were on Wednesday.

The theory used to be that applause was inappropriate between the numbers of Les Sophides, for fear of disturbing the atmosphere. The Kirov Ballet's performance of this work, given under its original title, Chopiniana, triumphantly proves that wrong. Only a curmudgeon could refrain from clapping solos and duets as marvellously danced as they were on Wednesday.

And it didn't disturb the atmosphere at all, so beautifully sustained are the moods. The Kirov's delicately modulated treatment is lighter than we are used to, with more variety and joy apparent in Fokine's choreography. A view of fields and trees makes a much more appropriate and attractive background than the gloomy churchyard which Diaghilev and Benoif misguidedly imposed on Western productions.

In this setting, the corps de ballet looks splendid and moves perfectly: 20 women in filmy, white dresses, dancing as if inspired by one heart, one mind, ideally together with the music and with each other. Outstanding soloists, too - especially Daria Pavlenko, cool and composed in the Prelude, and Irina Zhelonkina, lightly and urgently soaring through the Mazurka. Zhelonkina was perfectly partnered by Daniil Korsuntsev, dancing a handsomely elegant solo - Fokine'smore virile alternative to the one we generally see.

What a shame, after this treat, to encounter again the company's tawdry version of Scheherazade, held over from the inferior previous Fokine programme, with its long, tacky soft-porn duet and ludicrously absurd eunuch. But then came another high spot, The Firebird.

Using a reconstruction of Alexander Golovine's original designs makes the ballet far more dramatic than the familiar replacement by Gontcharova. Golovine's staircase at the back makes the entrances and exits altogether more striking and pointed; his tree with gold apples is more colourfully conspicuous, the statues of Kostchei's victims which come back to life at the end make the story far clearer.

The Kirov's enchanted princesses are just as butter-fingered as their Western equivalents in their game of catch with the apples, but in all other respects they are more lyrical - their ensembles more sinuously woven together. The Infernal Dance for Kostchei's creatures has, I suspect, undergone some technical elaboration in the staging by Andris Liepa and Isabelle Fokine - but for once, its wild, tumultuous energy matches Stravinsky's music.

Ilya Kuznetsov makes an amiably solid hero as Ivan Tsarevic, and Kostchei is the best of the curiously uneven Vladimir Ponomarev character roles. With this company we see The Firebird in its true glory. If they could only get a better version of Petrushka to go with this, and Chopiniana, it would make a worthy tribute to Michel Fokine, their choreographer of a century ago. Or, now that they have such a number and variety of excellent young dancers to supplement their mature artists, perhaps this should be the company to revive his Carnaval - once wildly popular but mysteriously neglected nowadays.

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