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First Night: `Swan lake' Coliseum London - Noble villain steals the stage from hero

WE HAVE seen some bizarre productions of Swan Lake over the years, and in fact it is a long time since a completely straightforward traditional version came our way.

So although Vladimir Vasiliev's new treatment for the Bolshoi Ballet is a drastic re-reading of both plot and music, there is no reason to be alarmed about it, even if one might be disappointed that he has not achieved the "traditional, classical, Russian manner" that he says he aimed for.

Odile, the wicked impersonator of the heroine, has been banished. Instead, the hero brings his beloved swan princess to the ball, and her big number there is Tchaikovsky's beautiful Russian dance, often omitted by Western stagings. She also gets a duet (during which all the guests oddly wander away - surely not for supper?) and the famous 32 fouettes.

The other major change to the plot is introducing a new character, Siegfried's father, who takes over some of the queen mother's usual functions of nagging their son, and also those of the evil spirit, Rothbart. In this capacity, surprisingly, he proves truly and vainly to love the heroine he has bewitched - which is sad for her, him, his wife and his son: an original and strikingly dramatic idea.

The first half of the ballet is not much difference in structure from usual, except that the prince has a jolly little chap tiresomely chasing him around, and that the swan princess loses her touching solo for a longer, showier, less meaningful one to music from later in the score.

In most of his choreography, Vasiliev seems to suffer even more acutely than the former Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich from St Vitus's dance, as if steps had to be judged by quantity rather than quality. Nobody must walk or stand, even though this might give a much wanted touch of poetry or romance. Instead, it is running and jumping all the time for the men, balances, high kicks and turns for the women.

Most of the audience applauded enthusiastically; purists were complaining bitterly. I found this Swan Lake certainly as acceptable as the Grigorovich version it replaces, although nowhere near as good as the older production which Grigorovich killed off.

Anyone who dislikes the production can, of course, shut their eyes and listen to Tchaikovsky music, richly played by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Alexander Kopylov. But it would be a shame to miss the dancers. The swan princess suits tall, sensuous Anastasia Volochkova quite well, and Konstantin Ivanov supports her earnestly as the prince. But it is Nikolai Tsiskaridze, powerful in technique and in presence, who dominates the ballet as its noble villain.