Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London <br/>Mikhailovsky Ballet, Coliseum, London

The National Ballet of China are elegant to a fault &ndash; if only Wang Qimin and her corps would throw caution to the wind
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The Independent Culture

It should be the perfect vehicle for the National Ballet of China. After all, in so many ways, Swan Lake resembles a Chinese ghost story. The evil magician; the enchanted, shape-shifting heroine, one thing by day, another by night; the blundering innocent who stumbles into the middle of the spell and falls in love with something not quite human; the misunderstandings and mistaken identities and impossible feats of physical bravura.

There are parts of Natalia Makarova's production when the company does assimilate the ballet and, without doing the familiar classical steps any violence, turns it into something that you feel you've never seen before. Wang Qimin's Odette has to be one of the eeriest creatures ever to step on to the Royal Opera House stage. She nuances every gesture with the exquisiteness of something that knows its material form is maintained by nothing more than a concentrated act of will. A moment's inattention, she suggests, and, torn between two natures, she will simply fly apart.

But then comes one almost subliminal instant in the adagio, when she plunges through Siegfried's hooped arms with a sudden surrender of muscle shape in her arms, like someone not just diving, but willing to belly flop into a sea of new emotions. Wang Qimin crystalises all the suicidal daring of Odette's falling in love in something less assertive than a shrug.

As Odile she parodies all her earlier delicacy with a succubus's relish, gloatingly thrusting into Siegfried's face that this looser, easier, more available approximation of his vision is what he really wants. If only Hao Bin's prince showed enough character to deserve either swan. Unfortunately, like a lot of the other dancers, he seemed incapable of any mood more dynamic than politeness.

The National Ballet of China dances with an elegance and precision that puts many companies to shame, but seems to lack a bit of the Devil. Even Wang Qimin's 32 fouettés are executed, rather than attacked. It may be cultural – saving face is a major concern in Asia, and it's obvious that nobody here wants to fall flat on theirs. Whereas in Russia and Latin America, especially, face is what you gain by risking more than anyone around you.

When Denis Matvienko, dressed in a headband and a few wisps of chiffon, twists around his own outflung leg like a panther shot in mid leap during the divertissements in the Mikhailovsky Ballet's triple bill, he is not only risking injury and ridicule but also the wrath of his artistic director, Farukh Ruzimatov, who made a career out of this kind of exhibitionism and might not take kindly to seeing it mocked.

There was a festive atmosphere at the Mikhailovsky's farewell to London. The programme included Petipa's virtuoso finale from Paquita and a series of party pieces beloved in Russia but hardly known here. Le Halte de Cavalerie, an 1896 romp by Petipa, received its first British performance, giving Andrey Bregvadze as a horny colonel of the hussars licence to unleash his full repertoire of moustache tweaks and thigh slaps in pursuit of Olga Semyonova's village beauty. Bregvadze is a gifted clown, no more in control of his limbs than he is of his hormones, and the comedy is seasoned with light, infectious, Bournonville-inspired dancing all around him, notably from Semyonova and from Anton Ploom as the Leo Sayer-like peasant she would rather have courting her.

Between Cavalerie and Paquita, came Matvienko's Ruzimatov tribute, in an excerpt from Le Corsaire, while Asaf Messerer's '50s ballet Spring Waters, to a Rachmaninov romance, allowed Irina Perrin to launch repeated life-threatening jumps into the arms of Marat Shemiunov. As usual, there was an opportunity for British audiences to shake our heads in disbelief at Russian taste in Oceans and Pearls, a wishy-washy pas de trois from an Alexander Gorsky ballet based on The Little Humpbacked Horse, which prompted the question: they shoot horses, don't they?

However, the triple bill and the company's earlier, solidly produced Giselle revealed what the season opener, Spartacus, had done its best to hide – that this is a burgeoning, well-trained company full of strong, eager young dancers, which could be rivalling the Bolshoi and Kirov within a few years.

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