If there is one sure lesson to emerge from the Kirov Ballet's season at Covent Garden, it is that they should never again be allowed to make, wear or carry anything that purports to be a furry animal. Their pachyderms are excellent - the life-size elephant that ambled across the stage in last week's performance of La Bayadère got a spontaneous and well-deserved round of applause. But the tiger that pops up twice in the same production might have come from a bargain bin in Hamleys, and the theoretically terrifying bear spirits in The Rite of Spring look as if they should be loitering around Paddington station, fighting over who gets sent back to darkest Peru and who gets the lucrative career in children's publishing.
There is more than a little about this Rite of Spring that smacks of playgrounds and fairytales - the really satisfying, nasty fairytales that are only separated from primal myth by a few years, general illiteracy and the infamously selective recall of old crones. The boldly coloured, deliberately naive costumes by Nicholas Roerich and the jerky movements, severely angled limbs and flat palms of the dancers create the impression of a balletic puppet show. And when Yulia Makhalina, as the maiden sacrificed for the good of the tribe, leaps into the air more than a hundred times to dance herself to death, she seems to be jerked upward on strings rather than jumping of her own volition.
The rhythms are complex but the movements themselves look clumsy - practically infantile - and this combination is part of the work's power. There is even something cruelly childish in the way the sacrificial maiden is chosen - a game of ring-a-roses in which the one who falls down first is pushed into the centre of the circle to be isolated, taunted and scapegoated. Makhalina's initial, catatonic non-reaction to her impending fate is the most harrowing part of the whole evening.
When Nijinsky first made this Rite of Spring, or something like it, in 1913, he caused such a scandal that the Ballets Russes dropped it from the repertoire within a few performances. The ballet was effectively lost, until in 1987 Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, after years of detective work, restaged it for the Joffrey Ballet. The Kirov acquired it only this year. Hodson and Archer estimate that they have uncovered about 85 per cent of the original, but there is very little point in quibbling about degrees of authenticity. However much of this is certifiably Nijinsky, it stands on its own merits as one of the few Rites of Spring to tackle Stravinsky's normally overpowering music head on, encouraging you to hear this familiar work in a slightly unfamiliar way - not as an orchestral masterpiece onto which someone has, unwisely, tacked a bit of choreography, but as a score that was written to be danced.
In a triple bill that was aptly titled "Contrasts", The Rite of Spring was tee-ed up perfectly by Balanchine's Serenade, an abstract, infinitely gentler ballet that nonetheless seems to hint at similar concerns - the role of art as a mediation between the living and the dead. Or at least that's how it was danced by Sofia Gumerova, Viktor Baranov and a gloriously languorous Natalia Sologub.
The third part of the programme was perhaps less well chosen. After the pummelling of The Rite, Harald Lander's Etudes at first looked cute but inconsequential, and it took some breakneck virtuosity from Svetlana Zakharova, Andrian Fadeyev and Leonid Sarafanov to justify this as the climax to the evening.
If The Rite of Spring could be labelled a convincing counterfeit, the four-act, 1900 vintage La Bayadère, reconstructed over the last three years by Sergei Vikharev and presented here for the first time, is authentically unsatisfying. The Kingdom of the Shades scene - with the famous entrance of the corps, filing downhill in a sequence of time-stopping arabesques - is untouched and miraculous as ever, and the rediscovered fourth act - although a bit of a mess - is quite good fun.
Petipa first created La Bayadère in 1877, and when he revised it 23 years later, at the age of 82 and close to retirement, he seems to have turned the last act into a career retrospective, cramming it with quotes from his other ballets, such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Disjointed though it is, at least it's non-stop dancing, whereas the interminable first two acts seem to consist of little more than props, parades and a badly told story about a prince, the temple dancer he loves and the homicidally jealous princess he is betrothed to.
Ninety seconds of expository mime would dispense with the whole pointless spectacle, and we could get straight down to The Kingdom of the Shades, and what the Kirov does best.