Like opening a bottle of Champagne and finding it has lost its fizz, this sumptuous-sounding MuzArts-presented triple bill starring Bolshoi, Mariinsky and Royal Ballet dancers leaves you feeling a little flat.

Ed Watson and Olga Smirnova in <i>McGregor + Mugler</i> © Sasha Gusov
Ed Watson and Olga Smirnova in McGregor + Mugler
© Sasha Gusov

The programme concludes with a world premiere by Wayne McGregor, with costume design and art direction by ex-fashion icon Manfred Thierry Mugler, and opens with a UK premiere, Radio & Juliet, by Romanian choreographer Edward Clug. But it's Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s decade-old Faun that leaves a lasting impression. How ironic that a piece depicting the simmering sexual tension between a nymph and a creature who’s half-man, half-animal is the one truly to capture what it means to be human. To Debussy’s sensual score, interweaved with ethnic music by Nitin Sawhney, two barefooted Bolshoi dancers – Anastasia Stashkevich (in a virginal-white, front-pleated tunic) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (in pale-green underpants) – encounter each other in a mystical forest. As they languorously peel themselves off the floor and make their way towards each other with unfurling, yogic movements, shyness gives way to curiosity. Initial tentative exploration of each other becomes bold then playful as they peekaboo through each other’s legs, feet intertwining, limbs interlocking. It’s a shame the music isn’t performed live to allow more spontaneity, particularly when Lopatin’s faun initially uncurls from a deep sleep; and the stage’s surface is not the dancers’ friend – feet stick where they shouldn’t, and contortions that should look effortless become laboured. But these moments barely detract from the theme of self-discovery through sexual awakening that pervades the work.

Vyacheslav Lopatin and Anastasia Stashkevich in <i>Faun</i> © Anna Durdyev
Vyacheslav Lopatin and Anastasia Stashkevich in Faun
© Anna Durdyev

This theme could also be applied to Radio & Juliet, Clug’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s classic to the music of Radiohead: “What if Juliet did not choose to part with her life?” asks Clug. But any hope of a feminist angle is misplaced. The baffling ‘plot’ flits between a black-and-white film of a corseted Juliet, lying on a bare mattress or huddled on a window sill, and on-stage action with Juliet and her six suitors (appropriately suited up, though bare-chested). We surmise that one of these is Romeo, and another is Mercutio; there’s even a Friar Laurence (albeit donning a surgical mask) – but any other similarities are intangible.

<i>Radio & Juliet</i> © Maximov
Radio & Juliet
© Maximov

The saving grace is Katja Khaniukova, First Soloist with English National Ballet. She may have to squeeze into a corset while the men around her – Mariinsky Principal Denis Matvienko and five dancers from Clug’s Slovenian Maribor Ballet – remain (almost) fully clothed, but she dances with such dignity and integrity that she convinces us that Juliet is not a victim. From the opening, as we hear the unsettling computerised vocal utterances of Radiohead’s Fitter Happier, she owns Clug’s stylised contemporary choreography. Whether she’s moving robotically, jerkily, like a puppet on a string, or cavorting with Romeo, tugging at his coat-tails and playing footsie with him like in an Argentine tango, her fluidity and command of movement are mesmerising. Matvienko and his five ‘henchmen’ have their individual strengths, but synchronicity is often lacking. Their dance-fighting can be sinister – particularly when, rubber-gloved, they pick up a twitching Mercutio (Christian Dominique Guerematchi, excellent) – but too often veers into cliché. And the commercial dance elements fail to convince (these dancers are clearly rooted in the classical ballet style), though the ‘leaning’ Michael Jackson move is fun.

Ed Watson and Olga Smirnova in <i>McGregor + Mugler</i> © Sasha Gusov
Ed Watson and Olga Smirnova in McGregor + Mugler
© Sasha Gusov

But if it’s fun you’re after, McGregor + Mugler is it. Outrageous, camp, glitzy, over-the-top … think the laser-fuelled Orlando from McGregor’s Woolf Works, pared down to 15 minutes for two dancers and you’re on the right track. It’s wonderful to see the Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson dancing again after his injury, and he looks in great shape (Mugler’s skin-tight, gold-sprayed bodysuit, complete with sparkling codpiece, leaves little to the imagination); he swoops and undulates to Holly Herndon’s pounding electronic score as if his life depends on it. But Watson’s forte is conveying tortured emotions – no one who has witnessed his Crown Prince Rudolf will ever forget it – so why cover his face with a mask (even if, disconcertingly, it’s of his own face)? And when he and statuesque Bolshoi star Olga Smirnova – dancing en pointe here – discard their armour and headdresses to reveal punky ponytails and feathers on their arms and legs, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment (even though it’s not meant to be). Watson and Smirnova make an exciting partnership, but there’s too much manipulation of Smirnova’s exquisitely long limbs into astonishing extensions (sadly not always properly centred) and not enough of a genuine connection between them. When the music transitions to a lyrical piano piece by Nils Frahm, and Lucy Carter’s lighting shifts from turquoise to amber, we finally see a softer side to these dancers. The preening, strutting peacocks have finally been replaced by two turtle doves. Or maybe I’m just trying to read too much into something that’s all show and no substance.

**111