at the Chicago Theatre

November 13-17

Though the high-flying pyrotechnics of the Bolshoi spell immediate box-office success, and their tour de force performances might wow the uninitiated, the ballet cognoscenti often dismiss them as mere circus acrobatics–pointing instead to the exemplary sophisticated lyric technique of the Kirov Ballet. For pure classicism, the Kirov just can’t be beat. This is, after all, the company that in its long history has given us not only Agrippina Vaganova and her incomparable teaching technique but some of the greatest names we associate with the art: Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and more recently, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev.

If companies were designer dresses, the Kirov would be a Christian Dior, with none of the fussy noise of a Christian LaCroix–the style of the flamboyant Bolshoi. And the Kirov’s clean, elegant lines have the same staying power as those of Dior’s creations.

The Kirov’s sets and costumes, however, are far from pared down. The men’s vests and the women’s tutus are loaded with sequins and gemstones, adding to the fairy-tale splendor onstage. The sets and costumes for the three classic works on the program I saw brilliantly carried out the moods of the pieces. In George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, everything seems to glow with an idyllic rosiness–there’s a profusion of pink tutus and reddish kilts, reeking of Romanticism. For the second act of Swan Lake, a placid silver gray lake shines almost surreally amid craggy rocks and trees. The scene seems to close in on you, making you feel you’re enclosed in a cave, looking out. The set for the Paquita excerpt is commanding as only the Russians, with their czarist history, could have made it. The stage seems covered with chandeliers and candelabras; gold statuary glimmers through a chiffon scrim. Rich rust-colored velvet curtains extend across the whole stage.

Against this lush background, the pristine classicism of the dancers in their divertissement variations stands out even more prominently. The dancers all have the most exquisitely pointed feet, and their hands and fingers are just as perfectly placed, sometimes expressing fine stylistic nuances. There’s definitely a clean neoclassic look to the way the hands and fingers are placed in Scotch Symphony, whereas all the movements in Paquita (choreographed by Marius Petipa) have a much broader, more regal sweep, the fingers more traditionally placed, meticulously spread to resemble flowers.

The women especially (the male lead dancers seemed a trifle weaker at times) have a throwaway technique, a tossed-off but completely secure and comfortable energy that makes them look as though what they’re doing is the easiest thing in the world, entirely in the natural course of events. There was a moment in Swan Lake when Lyubov Kunakova as the Swan Queen seemed as if she might go on dancing forever–and you felt you could happily watch her. Her light, airy jumps make her movements seem even more effortless. She has a way of breathing into each motion, then carrying it through fluidly to its ultimate point of gracefulness; one movement flows into another like water. (Larissa Lezhnina and Veronika Ivanova displayed the same apparently boneless wrists in Scotch Symphony.) In her Paquita solo, Kunakova was ethereal, her fingers light, her softly curved arms moving in graceful little backward arcs as she crisscrossed the stage, looking as if she were swimming her way delicately through the air.

Ivanova’s Paquita solo, by contrast, seemed almost a flurry of tiny little movements and steps, as if she were dancing over eggshells. Tatyana Terekhova, the lead dancer in the Paquita excerpt, has a way of smiling toward each of her movements that adds a sweet, charming emphasis to each. Absolutely secure in her technique, she actually goes over the limit of the infamous 32 fouettes, throwing in a few extra for good measure. Her partner, Alexandr Kurkov, while not as secure as she when he lands after his high, light jumps, floats through his barrel turns. When he’s on, he’s on–and bowls the audience over with his technique.

But the true strength of the Kirov, what it’s best known for, is the impeccable precision of its corps. Their legs and arms move with the staccato perfection of the Rockettes’–but with none of the Rockettes’ stiff regimentation. The Kirov corps dance in unison because they have learned to move as one body, with one set of arms, one set of legs; and their movements have the body’s natural grace, not the precision of a machine. When the four cygnets dance, their fluid perfection takes the dance beyond the level of cliche.

The corps even line up correctly, especially in Swan Lake, one behind the other, with not even the hint of a wobble because one ballerina is out of step. Not a single toe is overpointed, a single hand extended too far. That sublime unison is an ever-present reminder of why the Kirov has become the standard by which others measure themselves. It’s what ballet should always look like, but so rarely does.