The American Ballet Theatre return to the stage of Sadler’s Wells this week with two mixed programmes of 20th and 21st century ballet. The first programme, of four one act pieces, explores the relationship between music and dance, beginning and ending with a UK premiere.

Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev in Alexei Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas / cr. Gene Shiavone
Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev in Alexei Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas / cr. Gene Shiavone

Seven Sonatas choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence and former Bolshoi director, opens the programme. Inspired by the lyrical music of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, Ratmansky’s work is breathtakingly beautiful, executed with skill, charm and humour by Julie Kent, Yuriko Kajtya, Xiomara Reyes, Herman Cornejo, David Hallberg and Gennadi Saveliev.

In the opening sonata all six dancers appear on a sunlit stage, dressed in elegant white costumes. While drawing upon the discipline of classical ballet Ratmansky allows the dancers to move almost spontaneously as they flow naturally from one position to the next. Yet the dancers do more than follow the music, they express it and through the pattern of their movements channel the pattern of the notes. This is visibly reinforced by the presence of pianist Barbara Bilach on stage, her dextrous hand movements echoing the complexity of the dancers’ positions.

Each sonata is distinct in content and tone and this is matched by the change in choreography. The second sonata features a series of graceful solos, the next three feature duets exploring different relationships in each pairing, while in the sixth sonata the dancers combine in a variety of trios. In the final movement the ballerinas recline before their protective partners as if they are falling into a relaxed sleep. This is a romantic and appealing work which contrasts neatly with the next piece, the Junk Duet from Twyla Tharp's Known By Heart, which cheekily plays with the form of the classical pas de deux. Sure enough the couple, Blaine Hoven and Gillian Murphy, dance together, perform a solo and are reunited, but Tharp challenges tradition, incorporating jazz and tap, and enabling the ballerina to take charge of this particular pairing.

In Balanchine’s Duo Concertant the relationship between music and dance is once again made visible with the dancers Paloma Herrrera and Cory Stearns joined on stage by pianist David Lamarche and violinist Ronald Oakland. In a series of sequences the musicians play the Stravinsky score the while dancers stand by the piano listening attentively before translating the music into technically ambitious dance steps

The evening draws to a close with Everything Doesn't Happen At Once by Benjamin Millepied, a choreographer who has captured the popular imagination through his work on Black Swan and his engagement to actress Natalie Portman. Again the musicians are on stage with the dancers but this time the scale of the work is bigger and the percussive score is bolder. The piece opens with 24 dancers framing the stage before moving into bold geometric patterns in time with the beat. It is energetic, striking and technically accomplished but ultimately it lacks the maturity and refinement of Seven Sonatas.

All in all this is a hugely enjoyable evening which demonstrates the skill and versatility of this wonderful company.