The Arts: Welcome to the Ballet Zone ; for the Next Few Weeks London Turns into the Dance Capital of Europe. Nadine Meisner Looks at the Kirov, Whose Royal Opera House Performances Include Balanchine's Shimmering Jewels and John Percival Welcomes a Rare Appearance by the Zurich Ballet

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The solemn, self-possessed face of George Balanchine stares out from childhood photographs. It has a focused stillness that seems quite exceptional, isolating him from other people. Aged about four, he sits with his brother and sister; a skinny 10-year-old, he stands outside the family dacha in Finland. Not long after, he poses with his brother, sporting a bandaged finger and dressed in the cadet- like uniform of St Petersburg's Imperial Theatre Ballet School. Like Nijinsky, Fokine and Nureyev, this is where he trained, before eventually making it big in New York. Since his death in 1983, more companies than ever perform his work, among them his alma mater, the Maryinsky Ballet - which Westerners still call the Kirov. The Kirov has several in its repertoire, each acquisition like the hero's return in his 1929 Prodigal Son, except that Balanchine always returns in triumph.

Jewels, which he created for New York City Ballet in 1967, is the Kirov's latest. Mounted last October in its St Petersburg Maryinsky home, it is bringing it to London. No other European company has staged the entire ballet, although several have performed one or other of its three acts - "Emeralds", "Rubies", "Diamonds". The Kirov scoop is apt because the last section, "Diamonds", to Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony, is considered a homage to St Petersburg.

"Diamonds" was Balanchine's last ballet in the grand Russian Imperial style, the formal, opulent classicism he had learnt as a boy from Petipa's ballets. Suzanne Farrell, chief of Balanchine's muses, danced the ballerina role. As a publicity exercise, she went with Balanchine to Van Cleef & Arpels on Fifth Avenue, where they draped her in jewellery. Actually, Balanchine was vague when asked about the jewels theme, and many suspected it was merely a way of packaging three ballets together. He also gainsaid the American evocation ascribed to "Rubies": "It is simply Stravinsky's music," he stated, "which I have always liked and he and I agreed to use." But he did confirm the nationality of the dreamy opening "Emeralds", set to Faure. "If this part of the ballet can be said to represent anything at all, it is perhaps the evocation of France, the France of elegance, comfort, dress, perfume." Either way, Jewels was a smash hit from the start.

Staging it was, for the Kirov, a monumental undertaking of three lots of scenery, a piano soloist and full orchestra, tulle and satin for two casts of 66 dancers. Although no longer used for the NYCB production, the original decor as well as the Karinska costumes have been reproduced, on the grounds that they would look particularly good in the Maryinsky's exquisite 19th-century setting. Peter Harvey came out of retirement to oversee his designs - cascades of jewels suspended above the stage and various draperies. And Perry Silvey, NYCB's production stage manager, was imported to replicate Ronald Bates's lighting. As Karin von Aroldingen, one of the four repetiteurs sent by the Balanchine Trust to rehearse the dancers, says: "It was everybody and it was overwhelming."

The Kirov requested Jewels years ago, but cash shortages halted the project. In between, the company has procured several Balanchine ballets, including Symphony in C. It was, in the event, more logical for the dancers to start with Symphony in C, given that it is a precursor of Jewels, but a more manageable one-acter. That does not mean they found Jewels a doddle, but at least it was less painful.

"When Patricia Neary [another Balanchine Trust envoy] came to rehearse Symphony, she came to my office after a couple of rehearsals and starting shouting, very upset," remembers the Kirov Ballet's director, Makhar Vaziev. "She said Uliana Lopatkina [now the Kirov's leading ballerina] would never cope in this ballet. I said nothing, I only repeated, `You have a contract with the company, just do your work'. And four or five days later she came to me and said, `I'm very sorry, it was my mistake; she is wonderful'. …