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DANCE

This is the time of year when the ballet-fancier's choice starts to look a bit like Hobson's. There's either the one about the little poor girl with no nice clothes who gets to dance with a prince, or the one about the little rich girl with lots of nice toys who also gets to dance with a prince. In London, for once, the ballet companies have managed to spread their festive wares equally between Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky - thanks to a judicious reshuffle by the Royal Ballet, which switched its projected Nutcracker to Cinderella at the eleventh hour. But the most eager anticipation has been for the Kirov Ballet's offering, tantalisingly billed as our first chance to see the St Petersburg Nutcracker. This 1930s production, we are to believe, has a greater claim than any to the true spirit of Lev Ivanov's 1892 original. Proper snow at Christmas, sleigh bells, winter palaces - they know about such things in St Petersburg.

Of course there are many ways to crack a nut. In the 1950s, Ashton's Casse Noisette excluded both the party and the mouse battle. In the 1960s Nureyev gave the story a Freudian twist with the toy-maker turning into the Prince. Mark Morris's recent version had the adults snorting coke at the party and Clara swooning over Drosselmeyer's nephew. So what of the Kirov version that boasts a return to Ivanov's "original libretto"? Is it convincing? It is not. Forgetting for a moment that the first production was anyway an out-and-out flop, we have here a company that seems to doubt the value of any sort of production at all.

Cue Tchaikovsky's glorious party music, and enter "children" in high spirits. The boys are young women wearing ill-fitting wigs. We know they are boys because they keep slapping each other on the back. The girls skip and simper, miming oohs and aahs over each other's dolls. Young Masha (Clara in Western versions) is the only real child, a miniature adult in point shoes, gravely displaying her skinny balletic line in po-faced arabesques that render her more curious than endearing. Dr Drosselmeyer, far from introducing an occult frisson as the score suggests, comes on like Eric Morecambe in silly wizard's mufti. Worse is to come.

Lurching between blandness and ineptitude, the midnight battle of the toys has all the dramatic intensity of a tiff between Sooty and Sweep. A clock shows midnight stage left, but we hear it chiming stage right; a cloud of bats (were they bats?) are cloaked in a forgiving darkness by lighting that's still on a three-day week. So what gives the Kirov its grand reputation? Its dancing, stupid. Once child Masha is transformed into adult Princess (via the crudest kind of blackout), we get the works.

Altynai Asylmuratova is a grand exponent of the Russian style, cultivating a glittering stage persona that barely seems to register the scenario she's part of, or even the Prince she's with. Her love affair is entirely with the audience - expressed in bravura balances that hover unsupported for longer than seems humanly possible or necessary, followed by flashing, flirting smiles that dare you to wish her on to yet greater risks. Stanislav Belyaevsky's solo dancing is powerful and superb but, with his attentions unrewarded, as a partner he is strangely mute.

At the end we are left examining our own expectations of ballet. Do we want coherent narrative and dramatic structure, or scintillating movement to match the best bits of the score? The Kirov presents in a nutshell the problem of ballet - what keeps so many from going to the ballet at all. Russian ballet is about technique, not soul; about the cult of the virtuoso, not dramatic truth. How strange coming from a country that has spent most of this century proclaiming the virtues of collectivism. Thereby hangs a tale.

What English National Ballet's casting lacks in technical glitter, Ben Stevenson's five-year-old Nutcracker (its sets a little dog-eared now) makes up for in gusto. The busy-busy business at the party may sometimes verge on the twee, but the show is dynamic, holds together and is terrific fun. Hyperactive Fritz becomes the hero of all small boys as he gleefully hacks off the head of his sister's doll. And Clara's present of a pair of ballet point shoes makes perfect sense of the problematic second half, both underlining her desire to move on from childhood and prepar- ing us for the stretches of stage time that are genuinely about dancing for dance's sake. Take a stray child to see it, if any excuse is needed.

But go alone to the Royal Ballet's luscious revival of Ashton's Cinderella, the English choreographer's homage - as it happens - to the grand aesthetic of 19th-century Russia. Lyric beauty drifts through much of this work like a heavy perfume, but nothing can prepare you for the heart-stopping entry of the heroine in the ballroom. As Prokofiev's score goes shimmering off the harmonic dial, the girl, in a trance, descends the ballroom stairs - each pointed step a tender balancing act that grows in amazement and self-awareness. Here is the subtle unity of dance, music and dramatic conviction that for me is ballet's raison d'etre.

Kirov Ballet 'Nutcracker': Coliseum, WC2, 0171 632 8300, to Sat. English National Ballet 'Nutcracker': RFH, SE1, 0171 960 4242, to 11 Jan. Royal Ballet 'Cinderella': ROH, WC2, 0171 304 4000, Tues & Sat only.

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