The romantic agony

<i>Kirov Ballet</i> Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

Back after just a month, the Kirov Ballet opened the last half of its mammoth London season with another heavyweight signature piece - not one of its 19th-century classics, but Romeo and Juliet, which it has similarly given (with a little help from Shakespeare) to the rest of the world.

Back after just a month, the Kirov Ballet opened the last half of its mammoth London season with another heavyweight signature piece - not one of its 19th-century classics, but Romeo and Juliet, which it has similarly given (with a little help from Shakespeare) to the rest of the world.

Premiÿred in 1940 with Leonid Lavrovsky as choreographer and the legendary Galina Ulanova as Juliet, this was the version for which Prokofiev composed his celebrated score. And even if it was beaten to the stage by a 1938 Czech production (to the same music), Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet was seminal. Acquired by the Bolshoi Ballet, it overwhelmed London in the company's début 1956 visit and it influenced versions to come, including Kenneth MacMillan's for the Royal Ballet.

The Kirov brought it to London a few years ago, when visually it seemed rather shabby. But Pyotr Williams's spacious original designs have recently been refreshed and now look magnificent, with a Veronese square overlooking misty hills, cool night skies, and a colonnaded terrace where elegant couples stroll to the Capulet ball. A rich brocade curtain operates as a rhythmic motif, besides being a tool for hiding scene changes while small events are enacted in front, the characters brought to the foreground as in a tapestry.

The musical order is sometimes different from MacMillan's version, so where MacMillan mirrors the conflict in Juliet's mind with Prokofiev's assemblage of great boiling sound-currents pulling in contradictory directions, here this relates to Romeo in exile. But the Kirov Orchestra, under Boris Gruzin, play Prokofiev as only Russians know how. Dissonant facets spring out as if gleamingly new, ominous surges acquire a titanic power, and the drums in the graveyard scene crash like claps of thunder.

Russian Romeo and Juliets are bigger, darker, heavier - Eisenstein crossed with Botticelli - and that goes for the acting, too. The craggy posturings need getting used to. I'm not sure we need quite the exaggeration suggesting a demented streak running through the male side of the Capulet clan. Vladimir Ponomarev went full out on his wild-eyed stare and flailing walk as Lord Capulet; Ilya Kuznetsov chafed and swaggered as Tybalt and tossed his chemical-red mane as if sponsored by L'Oréal. But Lady Capulet carried aloft, straddled hysterically over Tybalt's corpse, is a sight guaranteed to chill you to the core, and integral to the choreography.

That kind of raw idiom, though, is comparatively rare. Instead, stylised dancing tends to dominate, Lavrovsky opting for steps where our own tradition might lead us to expect gesture. Sometimes this comes across as intrusive, even histrionic, over-choreography; sometimes it squeezes out emotional naturalism. Even Altynai Asylmuratova and Igor Zelensky as the doomed lovers occasionally seemed to rest their acting on the outwardly flung arms of choreographed poses, especially earlier on.

Yet so often Lavrovsky finds a choreographic imagery that vividly encapsulates his characters' mental state: the lovers' small back-to-back circles, for example, translate their anxious flurry at dawn break; or when Romeo lifts Juliet's inert body high, artificially, rigidly horizontal, it seems an accusatory display against fate.

As the tragedy quickened, so the heartbeat of the performances grew louder. Asylmuratova is winding down her stage appearances, but her tense, screaming outlines as she danced her despair before the Friar were proof that her muscles and sinews have lost none of their uniquely expressive sensitivity. Zelensky is not usually at his most convincing when sunk in tragic depths, but by the end he was riveting, turning twice to look at Juliet to steel himself into swallowing the poison, then finishing sprawled horribly backwards down the tomb steps. He has a further performance as Romeo, but you can only catch Asylmuratova in other roles.

The Kirov Season runs to 19 Aug (020-7304 4000)

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