ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- When the curtain rose earlier this month at the Kirov Ballet, the tawny glint of the stage lights on the gilded, ornate theater sent a shiver through an audience that had come hoping the legendary, 212-year-old company, now mired in scandal, could still dazzle.
But before the first act of "Don Quixote" was over, the thrill had faded into fidgets.
The first dancer on stage, lanky and athletic, flung her long limbs about; the lead danseur justified critics' claims that the Kirov's male contingent is uninspiring. And even the grace of veteran prima ballerina Tatyana Terekhova could not cover the disarray in the corps behind her.
During intermission, spectators sat under the chandeliers in the century-old theater wondering what had become of the strict discipline and transcendental artistry that produced such stars as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
"I felt it was still the Kirov, but ," said Inna Hefler, a St. Petersburg balletomane who now lives in Germany. She struggled to put words to her disappointment. "I've seen better."
After giving the West an inferiority complex for decades, Russia's majestic ballet companies have been hobbled by artistic, financial and spiritual crises. Scandals, strikes, galloping commercialization, vicious political squabbles, a brutal mugging, rumors of Mafia infiltration and a business alliance between the Kirov and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon have robbed some of the glamour from the country's most beloved troupes.
As the Russian government has cut the generous Soviet-era budgets for ballet, the companies have been forced to spend more time on overseas tours to rake in enough hard currency to keep solvent. Many dancers live in pitiful poverty on salaries worth less than $100 a month when they perform at home. And critics say the endless touring, financial strain and political chaos in the companies are taking a toll on the dancers' art.
Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, after decades of stagnation, was paralyzed for 10 months recently by a savage feud between then-artistic director Yuri N. Grigorovich and then-general director Vladimir M. Kokonin. The internecine warfare polarized performers and triggered two unprecedented strikes.
In a dramatic conclusion this spring, after Mr. Grigorovich was forced out last spring, the Bolshoi's gold-embroidered curtain rose to reveal frowning dancers and stagehands milling about in blue jeans, causing the first cancellation of a scheduled ballet in its 219-year history.
The ruckus ended only when President Boris N. Yeltsin intervened and demoted the unpopular Mr. Kokonin. That cleared the way for what ballet lovers hope will be an era of renewal at the Bolshoi under the revered new artistic director, Vladimir Vasiliev, once one of Russia's greatest dancers.
Last week, St. Petersburg was reeling from the news that the general director and chief choreographer of the Kirov, which was founded under Catherine the Great, had been detained for alleged corruption.
Anatoly Malkov was nabbed in his office while accepting $10,000 in marked bills from a Canadian impresario who was cooperating with St. Petersburg police.
Police said they seized $150,000 in cash from Mr. Malkov's office and more than $100,000 when they arrested controversial choreographer Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov's chief artistic administrator.
Mr. Vinogradov told the St. Petersburg newspaper Nevskoye Vremya that the only money that police found in his apartment was $3,002, which he had brought into the country legally and declared to Russian customs. Mr. Malkov told journalists that a videotape of stacks of money found in his office was a fake. He said he had accepted the $10,000 from Canadian John Cripton but that the money was a bonus for good work, not a bribe.
Mr. Cripton, who reintroduced the Kirov to Western audiences in 1986, said he recently became aware that Kirov management was skimming part of the money paid -- often in cash -- to the company for overseas tours.
Mr. Cripton said he was prompted to contact the police by disgust and the realization that a company he loved was being starved.