Even the most extraordinary dancers may feel, at a certain point of their careers, the need to explore new ways of moving and expressing themselves. Paris Opera étoiles Sylvie Guillem, Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Marie-Agnès Gillot, for example, took their technique and artistry to a whole new level after working with contemporary choreographers. What is remarkable about Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin is their will to follow that same path at an age when they still dazzle audiences with Petipa’s, Ashton’s and Balanchine’s classics.

Natalia Osipova in <i>Silent Echo</i> © Bill Cooper
Natalia Osipova in Silent Echo
© Bill Cooper
This is not the first time we see the Bolshoi-trained Osipova experimenting with contemporary dance. In 2014, Solo for Two featured her and Ivan Vasiliev in three different stories about the comic and the tragic sides of romantic relationships. This time, Osipova and Polunin continue the couple therapy theme, all the while exploring other strands of contemporary dance.

The appeal of the show at Sadler’s Wells is grand: balletomanes couldn’t wait to see these extremely gifted dancers abandoning the panache that characterises Russian ballet and letting deeper and more organic sensations guide their movements. Other fans discovered ballet through David Lachapelle’s widely shared video Take me to Church, and were fascinated by Polunin’s precision and virility. They know that Osipova and Polunin are a couple, and expect to see a bit of their “real” lives on stage.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who created Mercy for Osipova and Vasiliev two years ago, was the only one able to move the ballerina out of her comfort zone. In Qutb, Osipova, Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara are not really characters, but creatures who support and compete with each other while they seek to move through what seems to be a muddy river. The moments when Kittelberger carries the other dancers in a fireman’s lift, without really knowing where to go, translates the despair of the creatures in such Dantesque scene. The less precise the steps, the more complex and dense the choreography; here, Osipova’s legs extension and swan-lake arms, beautiful as they may be, sometimes seem out of context.

Silent Echo, by Russell Maliphant, showcases Osipova and Polunin in a virtuoso ballet danced to a score by British electronic composer Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner. Despite the music and the absence of pointe shoes, the piece is structured in a quite conventional way (duet, two solos, and final duet). The choreographic phrases are perfectly performed – it is a treat to see both dancers crossing the stage with high-speed chaines and Polunin’s powerful jumps finished with extremely soft landings. On the other hand, they seem to have been transplanted from the classical repertoire into Maliphant’s work, and are disturbingly similar to Lachapelle’s Take me to Church.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in <i>Run Mary Run</i> © Bill Cooper
Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Run Mary Run
© Bill Cooper
 Arthur Pita, who choreographed the amazing dark comedy Facada for Osipova and Vasiliev in 2014, closes the evening with Run Mary Run, a piece about a self-destructive relationship narrated from the point of view of the deceased fiancés. The work, inspired by what Pita calls the theatricality of the songs played by The Shangri-Las in the 1960s, does not have neither the intensity nor the black humour of Facada. There are interesting and creative moments, such as the “duet” of arms that emerge from a shallow grave, or Polunin’s teenager-like kisses over Osipova’s body. Run Maria Run had the potential to be a deliberately funny choreography that would give the couple the chance to flirt with musical theatre.

Overall, the evening was disappointing not because the dancers missed the choreography, but precisely because the obsession with perception (a must-have in the ballet world) suffocated the chemistry of this mythical couple. We can only hope that the dancers will feel more at ease with the programme by the time the Edinburgh Festival starts, and also when they return to Sadler’s Wells next September.