To dance in front of an audience of peers in honor of one of the greatest names in dance history must, for any dancer, be a special occasion. The venerable task of celebrating Natalia Makarova’s 75th anniversary fell on two of the Mariinsky’s young dancers - Timur Askerov the Mariinsky Ballet's new male principal and Kristina Shapran, a first soloist who seems destined for a brilliant career. 

Romeo and Juliet feels like the right choice; one of Markarova favorite ballet, it is a story about loss as much as it is one of potential and possibility. Together, Shapran and Askerov tease out the alert, playful artifice of courtship – a little nervous, a little disbelieving. When Romeo offers his hand, she delays her reaction as if contemplating his thought, querying her heart – hesitation, curiosity, interest in one simple gesture. They dance the Balcony scene as if consumed with one another; two people that can’t quite seem to stop looking at each other. So far so good.

Part of the reason why Romeo and Juliet endures is the thrill (albeit painful) of seeing an entire life lived through on stage; "They learn, they grow and they change so that their deaths are tragic but not futile" writes the literary critic Marjorie Garber. But despair is a harder thing to pull off than euphoric recklessness or naïve dreams. In Leonid Lavrovsky’s version it is doubly hard to pull off because somehow somewhere the leads must bend the leanness of its tone poetry into the trenchant spoils of Shakespearian tragedy, and the posture, the stylized pantomime and the repeated steps don’t quite help. In the hands of another cast (the Mariinsky offered three this run) the production looked rather dated, lifeless. But with Yuri Smekalov’s commanding Tybalt and Alexander Sergeyev’s witty Mercutio it finds interpreters of much heart and much intelligence. It transpires too that simmering beneath Shapran’s initial Juliet - so delicately drawn, so shyly endearing  -is a cauldron of emotion. She is alternately exultant, tender, moving. Like the archetypal woman-child she is transparent, fragile yet gifted, paradoxically, with a passionate flight of spirit and a resolute, immovable will. Though she could use more technical abandon, her natural movement – she allows her fingers to splay, her elbows to hang limpid, her body to contort – means she (and consequently the ballet) is far more believable.

While Askerov’s dancing offers great visceral pleasure – it has ambition, stretch, urgency – the variations in dramatic thought that should motivate or emanate from the texture of his dance are sometimes lost. Partly that could be because the choreography doesn’t seem to give Romeo much space for growth. Where Juliet is tempting fate, playing defiantly with fire, he instead throws a tantrum, raging fists which Askerov dispenses with audible gusto. Partly too because he doesn’t seem to always understand what she, an instinctive actress, already grasps – the power of stillness, of finding the nerve to hold a gaze just that millisecond longer. In the balcony scene the spectacle of his dancing itself is enough. You get that he is empathetically trying to impress his Juliet, that his lofty jumps are metaphors of ecstasy but by Romeo's final solo the dancing is insufficient if it isn't infused with a deeper, more profound emotion. And so, ultimately, though his dancing can be impressive in spurts and starts it is the accumulation of nuances, the patient build up of a character which she offers that gives the ballet its central emotional core. His death scene though is wonderfully thought out and their partnership –intimate even conspiratorial – is genuinely convincing and full of potential. Here’s to hoping that they will make that journey and that even as they evolve, her sense of spontaneity – of dancing as if discovering the music, the movement, the moment for the first time – will always remain as stirringly plebeian and strikingly pellucid. We can only hope that in time she will bring to roles with herculean technical demands the same rare distinctiveness. In Makarova she has, however seemingly out of reach, an example, a legendary example of a dancer who has done everything and brought to everything the singular genius of her personality.

Few people know more about precipices than Natalia Makarova- the dramatic events surrounding her defection were perhaps only surpassed by her legendary dancing. Yuri Fatyeev spoke before the performance paying tribute to her career and Makarova spoke at its conclusion. I couldn’t understand either (they spoke in Russian, translation followed in Japanese) but by the time Makarova had finished many in the audience were visibly moved. The ovation on Wednesday was long and deeply felt. Just as it should be.