After the recent success, in Paris and on Broadway, of his stage version of the 1951 Hollywood musical An American in Paris, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon turns his attention to a real American in that city of the century before. Strapless, the first co-production by The Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi Theatre, ostensibly deals with society beauty Virgine Amélie Gautreau and the scandal caused by the portrait that John Singer Sargent painted of her in 1884. The black dress worn by the woman in Portrait of Madame X does have straps, but one of them has slipped from her shoulder. In an attempt to repair the damage done to Gautreau’s reputation, Sargent later altered the painting so that both straps are in place.

This forty-five-minute ballet, to music by Mark-Anthony Turnage, is sandwiched between two earlier ‘abstract’ works, also by Wheeldon: After the Rain (2005) and Within the Golden Hour (2008). For all that the presence of dancers such as Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson does to make it interesting, Strapless only occasionally gets off the ground; the other two works reach the sublime.

Reviewing Wheeldon’s Slavonic Dances (1996) in The New Criterion in 1997, dance writer Laura Jacobs said: “His ballet was too complicated and unfocused…filled with big moments that didn’t satisfy.” Almost exactly the same could be said of Strapless. The narrative is jerky, and the subject matter uncertain. Is it a ballet about Gautreau, or about Sargent’s relationship with his lover, Albert de Belleroche (Matthew Ball)? Reference is also made to another of the artist’s portraits, Dr Pozzi at Home. The red dressing-gowned Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi (Federico Bonelli) is Gautreau’s lover. He might be Sargent’s lover as well. The most charged moment of the piece comes when the two men lean towards each other on a sofa.

Osipova, the vain Gautreau, dances as always from her toes to her fingertips, with pointework that cuts through her lavish but often crowded surroundings. Edward Watson, carefully restrained, shows a Sargent who is ultimately more interested in paintings than people. As Pozzi’s wife, the lively Kristen McNally expresses outrage and shock, through staccato movement, on seeing what she considers to be the indecent portrait of her husband. The men of the corps de ballet jump; the women pirouette and point accusatory fingers. But there is little in the work as a whole, including its flashforward, ‘happy’ ending, that is really clear or memorable.

This is not the case with After the Rain and Within the Golden Hour, both of which are being given their first performance by The Royal Ballet. Set to the meditative strings and piano of music by Arvo Pärt, After the Rain was created for six dancers of New York City Ballet. It shows the influence of Balanchine (through, notably the men’s upper body work and raised palms) and Ashton (the skimming lifts). But the standing women also lean forward on their seated partners’ shoulders and move their searching legs behind them like the hands of a clock. Where it is sublime is in the extended, intimate pas de deux of the second half, during which Marianela Nuñez, held aloft by a semi-naked Thiago Soares, resembles a bud that is consciously unfurling.

The larger scale Within the Golden Hour was created for San Francisco Ballet, to music by Ezio Bosso and Vivaldi. It contains pas de deux against different coloured backdrops for three sets of partners, all of whom bring out the best in their own and each other’s dancing. Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov share a youthful, even playful quality. She shows musicality; his fluid body disappears behind the movement. Matthew Golding provides firm support for Lauren Cuthbertson, who cantilevers from his body in the knowledge that the support is there.  Sarah Lamb ‘swims’ on Stephen McRae’s back like Terpsichore on Apollo’s in Balanchine’s Apollo. This democratic, exhilarating work, which shows Christopher Wheeldon to be a very musical choreographer, also has an active corps of four men and four women. The women gyrate their hips while moving across the stage on pointe. Two of the men (Marcelino Sambé and Luca Acri) dance a pas de deux of their own involving mirrored jumps in grand plié position. In Strapless, as in The Winter’s Tale for The Royal Ballet in 2014, Wheeldon seems to fall back on movement like Dickens on new characters, according to Virginia Woolf, when his plots got stuck. In Within the Golden Hour all the patterns make sense.