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Stripped of tragedy, Kirov's 'Swan Lake' still dazzles

If you've never seen "Swan Lake," now's the time. The famed Kirov Ballet and Orchestra is in town, and the company's signature production of the ballet lays claim to a legacy that extends back to its premiere in 1895.

But even if you think you know "Swan Lake," arguably the world's most beloved ballet, few in Boston will be familiar with the Kirov's version, which hasn't been presented here since 1964. Unlike the unalloyed tragedy most Americans cherish, this 1950 Social Realist version ends with a fairy- tale twist. Konstantin Sergeyev tweaked the original Petipa/Ivanov choreography to let the p rince destroy the evil sorcerer Rothbart and joyfully reunite with the Swan Queen .

Historic import aside, however, the Kirov's production is breathtakingly gorgeous, from the opulent costumes to the alluring sets, especially the opening scene's gold-tinged, tree-framed park in the shadow of the great castle.

The ballet's story never matches the emotional impact of Tchaikovsky's inspired, visionary score, with its musical characterizations and recurring leitmotifs ( the Kirov's orchestra plays this music with passion and commitment, including some especially expressive string solos ). But the tale is emotionally shallow and dramatically unpersuasive, and the feel-good ending is totally unconvincing.

However, the visual and visceral impact seldom wanes. For the most part, the dancing is first-rate. The star, of course, is the inimitable Uliana Lopatkina , who has been the Kirov's hottest ticket for many years. She merits the hype. Though her characterization of the Swan Queen Odette is slightly brittle, lacking vulnerability and an ethereal transparency, her technical facility is extraordinary. Her first act pas de deux is a jaw-dropping display of molten, luxurious control and suspension. Her posturing, with head back, chin thrust forward, and high arabesque radiating from a deeply arched back , is truly swan-like. As Odile, she is less evil seductress than saucy bad girl out for a little mischievous fun.

She has a palpable sexual chemistry with Ilya Kuznetsov , who is all coiled intensity as the evil Rothbart. With his dark avian wings and painted face, he is menacing yet slippery as smoke.

There is no chemistry between Lopatkina's swan and Igor Zelensky's prince, which is the evening's greatest disappointment. He seems dazed and confused throughout, portraying the young man as vacuous and distracted. Of course, the role gives him relatively little to do, but when he has a chance to shine technically in the second act, many of his jumps and turns are wobbly. The most flamboyant dancing is given to the role of the Jester ( like the happy ending, a Soviet-era contrivance). Though the meaningless character is often annoyingly distracting, Andrei Ivanov's brilliant leaps and corkscrew turns add flair.

The most surprising thrill is the corps. For the most part, they display not only impressive technical facility, but expressive unanimity and stylistic cohesion. They seem to breathe as one, dancing as if the music is in their bones.

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