Romeo, Juliet: wherefore art thou?

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I ONCE watched a ballet critic sleep through Romeo and Juliet. Periodically, cues in Prokofiev's score would nudge him into consciousness for one of Kenneth MacMillan's sexy, acrobatic pas de deux, then he would slither back into slumber for the ensembles. With Rudolf Nureyev's 1977 production, danced in London last week by the English National Ballet, you find yourself doing the reverse. Nureyev's version was clearly designed to eliminate any long- ueurs, and the result is a ballet packed with incident. The crowd scenes show an understanding of the workaday hatreds that give rise to mob violence, as bravado and bad manners escalate to a punch-up. As in all of Nureyev's productions, the male roles are enhanced and expanded, and all of the minor characters are vividly drawn: Juliet's bawdy, bosomy nurse spends her leisure hours being felt up by page boys. The entire stage fizzes with life; but the whole concoction goes sadly flat when it should be at its most potent and stimulating. The lovers themselves never hold our interest. As a result, this was not Romeo and Juliet so much as Montague and Capulet, the real drama being played out in Ezio Frigerio's spare and stylish streets.

Nobody could accuse Maria Bjornson of being spare and stylish, and her designs for the Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty do not improve with acquaintance. The set is nice enough in its pretentious, cock-eyed way, but the fussy and attention-seeking costumes are almost uniformly hideous. Yet on Tuesday night Darcey Bussell took on the production - and won. Although she danced the lead at the glitzy world premiere in Washington last year, Bussell was denied the British premiere in November by a troublesome bone spur on her heel. Last week she finally got her chance to show London how she looked in the new production. For once, nobody was looking at the set.

Her debut as Aurora (in the old production) two years ago may have been a little shaky, but even then it was clear that this would prove her greatest role. She is now total mistress of the steps, and can make you gasp at the leisure with which those long, long legs describe every battement and developpe. This thrilling languor is born of the in- credible strength and stamina that enabled her to sail through Tuesday's three-act marathon without even breaking into a sweat. She acts too, taking proper care to be a different girl in each scene: the shy debutante who punctuates her solos with anxious backward glances at the King and Queen, the cool beauty in the vision scene, and the triumphant bride in the finale. As the music swelled for the Rose Adagio, the incessantly talkative old bat next to me ("Who is she? Is she anyone famous?") actually asked to borrow my opera glasses. Buy your own bloody binoculars, I wasn't going to miss a step.

Meanwhile at the Coliseum, the Kirov were dragging themselves into the 20th century with a sumptuous programme of works by Mikhail Fokine: Les Sylphides (1908), Scheherazade (1910), and The Firebird (1910). Although Sylphides has always been in the St Petersburg repertoire, the others are recent acquisitions, im- maculately staged for the company with help from Fokine's granddaughter. Sylphides can seem slightly po-faced and lugubrious in the wrong hands. Fortunately, dancers like Janna Ayupova evoke the ghosts of Pavlova and Karsavina with a lightness and fluency that transform the potentially bloodless ballet into a distillation of Romanticism. Nijinsky's ghost was clearly elsewhere on Wednesday night and Stanislav Balyaevsky was no match for Ayupova. It was a weak night for men all round, with Alexander Kurkov doing his beefy best as the Golden Slave who drives the lovely Zobeide to suicide in Scheherazade. But then who was watching him? Uliana Lopatkina, looking for all the world like Lana Turner in a turban, was showing us exactly what that bendy Kirov spine is capable of, as she curled her body into the sinuous shapes that so electrified Paris when the ballet premiered in 1910. Proust wrote that he had never seen anything so beautiful. And so sexy - this was the ballet that Boston tried to ban. The shock that greeted the early performances is hard to rekindle and many now regard it as unperformable. Still, even those who dismiss Scheherazade as a museum piece would be happy merely to gaze at Bakst's luscious evocation of a story-book harem while the Maryinsky orchestra played Rimsky-Korsakov. Eighty-five years on, the crowd was still going bananas.

'Fokine Triple Bill': Coliseum, WC2, 0171 632 8300, Mon & Tues (Altynai Asylmuratova will dance 'The Firebird' on Mon). 'Romeo and Juliet': Royal Festival Hall, SE1, 0171 960 4242, to Sat.

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