Valery Panov's "The Idiot" may be less than it aspires to be -- a ballet "translation" of Dostoevsky's deep, resonant novel -- but it is also far more than the sum of its defects, as repeated viewings tend to confirm.

At first sight, one is almost inevitably struck with the gap between the ballet and the book. The "action" is all there on stage, and the ballet is nothing if not dramatic -- in atomosphere, mood, appearance and momentum. But the underlying motivation of the characters, which accounts for the book's richness of texture and moral profundity, remains almost inscrutable in the ballet. Why is the worldly, glamorous Nastasya drawn to the meek, distracted Myshkin? Why does she abandon marriage to him at the church door? Why does Rogozhin, who worships her, murder Nastasya? What is the source of Rogozhin's ambivalence towards Myshkin? These and other related questions are answered in the book, and the ballet's printed synopsis, but never in the ballet itself.

It could be that such questions are unanswerable in the wordless medium of choreography. In any case, after my third exposure to the ballet, via last night's cast headed by Vladimir Gelvan, Reda Sheta, Heidrun Schwaarz and Dianne Bell, the strengths of the production had come to seem at least as significant as the weaknesses. Once one stops looking for an "equivalent" to the novel, and for formal choreographic ingenuities, which Panov doesn't attempt, the flair, skill and thrust of his staging stand forth as remarkable for their own sake. One notices not the polyglot style of the choreography and decor, but rather, the amazing consistency of tone that's achieved despite this. Panov and his colaborators may not have sounded the depths, but they have captured nevertheless something of the soul-wrenching power of this Russian literary epic.

What's more, the production is more or less castproof -- that is to say, it retains its impact across a variety of shadings in interpretation. Gelvan's thoughtfully molded Myshkin, for example, is a more self-consciously pathetic outcast than Nureyev's innocent lamb -- I found Nureyev far more touching in the role, by virtue of his vunerability, but both portrayals work well. On the whole, Gelvan and the able but somewhat pallid Seta didn't generate half the emotional cataclysm that emanated from the Nureyev-Panov pairing, yet the ballet didn't really seem much diminished -- scenes like the mad, apocalyptic finale, which Gelvan makes as much of a tour-deforce as Nureyev, carry their own weight anyway.

The ballet could still be tightened some -- a number of scenes are needlessly extended -- but as elevated melodrama, it is an imposing achievement.