Defectors, rumors, and some old movies are the sum total of what most American dance fans know about Leningrad's legendary Kirov Ballet. Not seen in the United States in almost two decades, the company is now ensconced in Paris for an eight-week season that is providing westerners with the rare chance to see the current state of the company which once was home for Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov, to say nothing of Nijinsky, Pavlova and Balanchine.

Only about half of the company is in France. With nearly 200 performers on its roster, the Kirov is able to travel abroad with 90 dancers, plus an orchestra of 70 and a staff of 50, and still have enough compatriots at home so that the Leningrad performance schedule can continue unbroken.

The hopes and expectations of the audience flocking to Paris rest with Oleg Vinogradav, the 44-year-old director of the Kirov, who was appointed in 1978, when rumors of dissatisfaction and artistic sterility were running rampant. At the time, visitors to Russia were reporting an alarming decline in the Kirov's splendor. The loss of Baryshnikov, one of the century's most superb dancers, was symptomatic of a malaise plaguing the company. By the mid-'70s the Kirov was like a fading oil painting buried under layers of yellowing varnish.

The dynamic Vinogradav is polishing things to a new sheen. He's reversed the deterioration and clearly managed to boost the company's sagging morale. The sense of camaraderie onstage is particularly evident in the female corps de ballet, which is smooth and tightly knit, the essence of a letter-perfect ensemble.

But Vinogradav hasn't yet managed to strip away all the fustian and filigree weighing down the dancers in outmoded, heavy productions. The designs tend toward either French chic from the '50s (as in "Swan Lake"), or English provincial touring company (as in "La Sylphide"). All are served up with lighting that either glares like a midday sun or plunges everything into bilious, obscuring shadows. Subtlety may be the hallmark of the Kirov dance technique, but it is an unknown commodity to the Kirov designers, particularly in the barn-like vastness of the Palais des Congres with its 4,300 seats and Madison Square Garden-sized stage.

The new artistic policy at the Kirov seems to be a balancing act. Vinogradav is keeping the company's crown jewels such as "Swan Lake," "La Bayadere" and "Giselle" on glittering display, while also trying to add contemporary works to the repertory. Unfortunately, the new Soviet choreography tends to be more cut-glass than diamonds.

Vinogradav's own ballet, "Le Revizor" (1980), is the sole new evening-length work brought to Paris. Based on Gogol's "The Inspector General," a satire of petit-bourgeois bureaucracy, the ballet is a busy, kaleidoscopic work with many short scenes butting into one another and rushing by at cinematic speed. Whenever it does slow down enough to allow for some extended dancing, one can see that Vinogradav is trying to respect the traditions while at the same time expanding the horizons.

The brightest moment in "Le Revizor" is a punning duet for the young lovers. A dream-role reversal of standard partnering, it features the heroine fantasizing an encounter with her would-be lover. He materializes complete with little wings that conjure up visions of all the sylphs and other female mirages who populate the romantic classics. But he is far from aloof and elusive. Flapping around like a demented butterfly in heat, he chases after the girl with enthusiastic, comedically bumbling ardor.

The "message" is equally blatant. Bribes are handed out right and left. Kickbacks and payoffs are personified by female dancers garbed in sandwich-board rubles that make them look like the cards out of "Alice in Wonderland." The men, using every underhanded means available, scuttle, push and grab their way up an escalator of success.

At the finale, the small-town bureaucrats realize they've been duped by an impostor, their clothes fall off (revealing long underwear and bald pates) and harsh white lights are suddenly beamed directly into the audience's eyes--just in case we've missed the moral behind the laughs. Still, "Le Revizor" is a diverting entertainment.

But the classics are the heart and soul of the Kirov. For American viewers the third act of "La Bayadere," familiar through the version staged by Makarova for American Ballet Theatre (1975), is the most illuminating moment of the Paris season.

It takes only a minute to see exactly where Makarova and Baryshnikov came from--and just a few minutes more to see why they had to leave. The dancers are, quite simply, astounding. Their mastery of the Kirov style, stretching back for generations in an unbroken line linked to the golden days of the art form, is dazzling. The problem is that the technique has been pushed so far; there is no longer room for anything except a display of facility.

The Kirov is not as gimmick-oriented as its more florid cousin, the Bolshoi, in Moscow, but its own version of flash is made up of extremely proper technique shot out in supersonic speed. This is not the loose, casual speed of Balanchine's New York City Ballet, but rather a dry, precise, parade-drill exactitude. The Kirov "La Bayadere" moves along at such an oom-pah-pah clip that there is no time for expansiveness of emotion. The feet flash like knives, jumps and multiple turns are a whirling blur, but the mystic heart of this dreamscape ballet is eroded by exhibitionism for its own sake.

The Kirov's streamlined "Swan Lake," one of the four versions on view in the USSR today, is so devoid of mime that one must accept the plot on faith. All this production has to offer is steps. The second act swan corps is luminous, but in the other acts the dancers seem to be urging themselves toward the breaking point.

Bournonville's "La Sylphide," the oldest extant ballet, is new to the Kirov as of last season. Expanded beyond the small dimensions in which it was originally conceived for Copenhagen's Royal Ballet, "La Sylphide" comes out looking hollow and empty. Despite the gentle manner of prima ballerina Olga Kolpakova, it is a stilted evening in the theater.

The only unmitigated triumph of the Paris season is "Chopiniana" (known to American audiences as "Les Sylphides"). Choreographed for the Kirov by Fokine in 1907, it is considered by many as the first ballet of the 20th century. A moonlit evocation of Chopin's music, without characters or story line, it marks the beginning of abstract ballet. Now, 75 years later, it is still the freshest, most vibrant and easygoing piece in the repertory.

Maybe Vinogradav will find some way of recapturing that excitement. Perhaps he can create a new path to lead the Kirov to an epoch of future greatness.

In the meantime, there are a few ballets such as "Les Sylphides" to show us how truly magnificent the Kirov Ballet once was.

Allen Robertson, who served on the NEA dance panel and is now living in Europe, writes for Ballet News.