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The Kirov Ballet: ever faithful, ever elegant

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Excitement over the North American tour of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet is based on the pursuit of an ideal. Like the hero in a 19th-century ballet, the dance community believes in a physical perfection, a nobility of soul, that has somehow survived from an earlier, purer time, and the Kirov embodies that ideal. It was the Imperial Russian ballet, of which the Kirov is the direct descendant, that crystallized classical ballet's technique -- its movement language -- and created its grandest theatrical works. The Kirov and its immediate predecessor, the Maryinsky school, have also produced some of the most extraordinary dancers, teachers, and choreographers of the 20th century, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine, and the contemporary artists Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Kirov is where you go in the ballet world to look for impeccable training, elegance and expression in dancing, and faithful productions of the classics.

Philadelphia's sprawling, 5,000-seat orchestra shed, the Mann Music Center, was not the best place to savor a full-length Kirov classic, let alone assess the company after its 22-year absence from the United States. In fact, the whole rationale of the tour -- seven America and Canadian cities in just a month -- belongs to theater of the absurd: last minute bookings; no appropriate theaters available; no date in New York, the nation's dance capital; pressurized travel and rehearsal schedules; limited repertory.

Nevertheless, the performance I saw in Philadelphia did show off the Kirov resources and reveal some of its stylistic priorities.

Even though ``Swan Lake'' has been handed down in an unbroken line through the Maryinsky/Kirov ballet masters since its definitive form was reached in 1895, what we see today is only relatively authentic. Contemporary taste, politics, even the size of the stage can affect the look of a ballet, and the current Kirov ``Swan Lake,'' staged in 1950 by Constantin Sergeyev, is streamlined in several ways.

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