Dance: The man who took ballet out of its tights

Mikhail Fokine, the daring and innovative choreographer of the Ballets Russes, believed that there could only be evolution and not revolution in art. From this pragmatic premise, he went on to create pieces that were to alter the whole face of Russian ballet, considered by many at the turn of the century to be stale and outmoded. Fokine believed that ballet had lost expression, soul and relevance to the changing world around it (still a dilemma for ballet today), in its rigid pursuit of virtuosic technique. His aim was to reinvest dance with meaning, thus enabling a ballet to mirror its subject-matter more closely, and to reflect visually on the time and place in which it was meant to be set.

The first Fokine programme presented by the Kirov this week summarises some of his evolutions, and while these works are certainly not revolutionary for London audiences of the Nineties, I couldn't help thinking that they may still be for this most antiquarian ballet company and its Russian audience. Le Spectre de la rose is a steamy little fantasy which brings the male dancer into the limelight - and gently shoves the formerly worshipped ballerina into the wings. Originally danced by Nijinsky in 1911, the role of the rose who metamorphoses into a seductive lover in the dreams of his female owner was yesterday performed by the Kirov's head boy, Farouk Ruzimatov, a dancer of supreme elegance. But it was with the Polovtsian Dances, a short danced act made for Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor, with which Fokine most stirred up the old classical- dance regime. In this work he democratised the format of the ballet spectacle by shortening it to one act, having it danced en masse, attaching equal importance to all the roles, incorporating gutsy Russian folk-dancing, and abandoning the standard pointe-shoes, tutus, and "men in tights". Although the music is a somewhat hackneyed favourite Top 20 classic, some of the movement is definitely surprising. The whole dance resembles a Broadway chorus line clashing with rave dancers in its full- on noise and action. Its concoction of Cossack dancing, high kicks and body gyrations liberates the stiff ballet vocabulary, while the colourful baggy Turkish trousers and loose tunic tops free both male and female dancers from their usual tedious bondage.

Fokine's golden oldie The Dying Swan, created for Anna Pavlova in 1905, is probably the dance that is most true to its subject matter. For here, the ballerina (on Thursday, Uliana Lopatkina) in a white feathered tutu with absurdly elongated rippling limbs and neck, does look uncanningly like a swam struggling for its life. The sudden collapse of the torso in standing position, followed by the desperate undulations through the body as it is folded over one straight leg on the floor, was remarkable for its time, when the body of the ballerina, in contemptuous defiance of gravity, was always held straight and erect. In contemporary dance we are accustomed to seeing dancers more earthbound, falling into the floor or working on it with ease and grace, but when ballet succumbs to gravity it looks incredibly awkward. The ballerina suffers a similar humiliation to that of the dying swan. Another convincing "ballerina bird" was Irma Nioradze, who gave a dazzling performance as the impulsive scarlet Firebird in Fokine's surreal ballet of the same name. This was one of the first works to embody the great collaborative nature of the Ballet Russe, as it presented the exotic designs of Leon Bakst, a leading designer of the time, with a magnificent score by Igor Stravinsky.

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, choreographed in 1934 by Rostislav Zakharov, looked regressive in comparison to the Fokine works. This stodgy and at times ridiculous ballet, based on a poem by Pushkin, tells a misogynistic tale of jealousy and possession which culminates in the death of both leading ladies. Set in a land of Tartars and harems, the plot, costumes and designs conjure up Hollywood B-movies about the tacky adventures of Persian kings and queens. Boris Assafiev's music is banal, and the only interesting aspect is that of the beefy dramatic gesture which is woven into the dancing (Zakahrov's claim to fame was that he incorporated the Stanislavsky method of dramatic acting into ballet). Technically, it is danced almost too perfectly - sometimes the male dancers anti- cipate the music prematurely, leaving no room for pathos. Altynai Asylmuratova is the most expressive dancer, but, on the whole, I question what the point is of having such sensational dancers trained up to perfection - often, for women especially, at the expense of their health and well-being - performing such turgid work.

The Kirov's season continues at the Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), to Sat. Jenny Gilbert is away.

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