TWO ballet companies enter stage left and perform a pas de deux from a famous Russian ballet. On finishing, a panel of celebrities is asked to choose: which is the real Bolshoi Ballet? They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but the old adage could hardly be further from the truth for Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. In recent years, the troupe, which performs in the territory this week, has encountered a tangle of legal and public relations hassles concerning the coveted name, which Russian ballet companies - turning to international touring to boost coffers - have realised is worth more than its weight in gold. The name-game controversy flared two years ago in Hongkong, when the promoter of the Tashkent Ballet troupe tried to market the company as the Bolshoi Ballet. The Moscow Bolshoi was alerted and promptly took the company to court. Event sponsor Thomson Press was issued a summons and forced to remove the offending name from all advertisements. But not before the damage was done. ''The name is worth millions,'' said Bolshoi tour manager Pat Condon. ''It is incalculable. If you say the word Bolshoi, what is the first thing that comes to mind? ''With an organisation like the Bolshoi, that has a profile so big, so huge, there is always someone wanting to get a bite out of it. People are always trying to chop it down.'' The furore has caused a blight on the spotless 217-year-old reputation of the ballet, with the public and media struggling to decipher which is the real Bolshoi. ''It is a very sad misunderstanding,'' said Bolshoi principal ballerina Natalia Bessmertnova. ''The Bolshoi theatres in other cities received the name because of the building. You see the word means big, large. ''Other cities, Minsk and Tashkent, used the name, although the name has been a trademark since 1956, when the Moscow Bolshoi started touring in foreign countries. ''There is confusion, and it is misleading information to the public. The public does not know, so when they hear the name Bolshoi, they think they are going to see the Moscow ballet.'' The second Asian episode of the name game was played out in Bangkok in May last year. Before the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet's engagement, the company was told a promoter, Media Transasia Thailand Ltd, had already obtained the legal trademark of Bolshoi. The company was the same organisation that had a hand in trying to use the Bolshoi name in Hongkong two years earlier. ''The controversy has been put together by someone to take advantage of our name,'' Mr Condon said. ''As far as I know, a person in Bangkok registered the name there and attempted to use it to stop the Bolshoi from playing in Bangkok. We contacted the Russian Ministry of Culture and the director general of the Bolshoi.'' Director general Vladimir Kokonin angrily dashed off a letter to the Thai Government informing it of his thoughts on the situation: ''The Bolshoi Ballet has existed for 217 years and is a cultural treasure . . . the unauthorised use of the name by foreign corporations is an affront to both the Bolshoi Theatre and the Russian people.'' He then warned Media Transasia that if it did not transfer ownership of the trademark, the Bolshoi would demand ''expungement of the trademark and . . . damages''. In April the issue was still unresolved and Mr Kokonin thought the tour might be cancelled. ''It was a bluff, because when it came down to the wire, the promoter had to remove the name under pressure,'' Mr Condon said. ''The Russian ambassador wrote a strong letter to the Thai copyright department.'' This may have dampened Media Transasia chairman J. S. ''Kuku'' Uberoi's desire to corner the Bolshoi market, but did nothing to stop him from going ahead with bringing yet another Bolshoi ballet from Minsk to perform in Bangkok later this month. However, when International Cultural Promotions - which Mr Uberoi is also chairman of - brings the Byelorussian Ballet of Minsk to Hongkong later this month it will not be billed the Bolshoi. The Stars of the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet will perform at the Cultural Centre Grand Theatre from Thursday to June 13. The Byelorussian Ballet of Minsk performs at the same venue from June 16-20. Tickets are available at URBTIX.