DANCE The Fountain of Bakhchisarai London Coliseum
Three things have made the present Kirov season exciting and rewarding. One is the varied choice of ballets - eight different programmes spread through five weeks. Another is the casting, which gives fair chances to the established stars and a splendid group of new young dancers. And equally important is the care with which the repertoire has been prepared to show off ballets and dancers at their best.

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, revived on Monday, is a reminder of an outstanding period in Soviet ballet, roughly a quarter-century from the 1920s, when Russian choreographers led the way first in experimentation, then in the development of long dramatic ballets. The plot comes from real life via a Pushkin poem. Khan Girei captures the beautiful Polish Princess Maria, and carries her back to his Crimean home. Her purity prevents his lust, but his favourite wife Zarema's jealousy brings the death of both women. Hence the fountain in the title, symbolising his tears.

This provides strong roles which are strongly cast. When the legendary Galina Ulanova created Maria, that was definitely the leading role; nowadays they look more evenly matched. The first of three casts this week brought the amazing 18-year-old Svetlana Zakharova as Maria. Her mixture of proud bearing and youthful love in Act 1 was touching; I admired, too, the way she adjusted her arms to disguise a lift that went wrong until her partner could right it - a real thinking dancer.

Her soliloquy solo in the third act, however, went even further in its expressiveness, recalling past happiness and lamenting present grief. And in the following confrontation with Zarema, Zakharova held her own even against the Kirov's reigning ballerina, Altynai Asylmuratova. But the variety of Asylmuratova's role in the middle act gave her the edge: from smiling hauteur to despair at losing Girei's love, from the exotic voluptuousness of her attempt to ensnare him again to the dignity with which she kills the mockery of the other harem ladies.

Boris Asafiev's music is catchy but undistinguished - at its best in the opening scene, where the Polish folk tunes inspired the young choreographer (Rostislav Zakharov was just 27 when this, his first ballet, was premiered) to vigorous traditional dances, done with agreeably more weight now than two years ago. A Polish flavour here, and oriental colouring later, give character to the classical solos too, which are always concerned to advance the drama. The ballet's directness has a sophisticated core, and the designs by Valentina Khodasevich (including a house on fire under Tartar attack) are apt and stylish.

`The Fountain of Bakhchisarai', last perf tonight; Kirov season continues to 9 Aug, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-632 8300)

John Percival