“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” Thus the feisty Katharine warns off Petruchio in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, but he's irresistibly drawn to her – or to the tasty dowry attached to her hand in marriage, having come "to wive it wealthily in Padua". I've already enjoyed one balletic version of Shrew this year – John Cranko's at Birmingham Royal Ballet – but Jean-Christophe Maillot's for the Bolshoi is altogether superior. It is no quaint doublet-and-hose period drama, but a slinky, sexy, sardonic take on the Bard's prickly comedy.

Artemy Belyakov (Baptista) with Anna Tikhomirova, Daria Bochkova and Daria Khokhlova © Mikhail Logvinov | Bolshoi Theatre
Artemy Belyakov (Baptista) with Anna Tikhomirova, Daria Bochkova and Daria Khokhlova
© Mikhail Logvinov | Bolshoi Theatre
Unveiled in 2014, taking up Sergei Filin's challenge to create a new full-length ballet away from his Ballets de Monte-Carlo base, Maillot's Shrew has been an enormous hit in Moscow. It has made successful excursions to St Petersburg and Monaco, but was here receiving its London première as part of the Bolshoi's three-week Royal Opera House residency. And what a sharp contrast it provides to the fusty old Swan Lake production (though fabulously danced) the evening before – a liberal squeeze of lemon which demonstrates that this company is not content to rest on its imperial laurels, but can produce tangy new work.

The plot is much ado about nothing. Petulant Katharina – the man-hating shrew of the title – scares off potential suitors, causing her charming younger sister Bianca to despair that she'll never be free to marry, as tradition dictates the older sister must wed first. However, the roguish Petruchio fancies his chances of taming Katharina, especially if it means gaining her handsome dowry, and he forces her, if not into submission, then into an amicable truce. This allows Bianca to get hitched to her beloved Lucentio and all's well that ends well.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest's sleek set largely consists of a curvaceous white staircase, which splits in two, plus a few ivory columns. Costumes by the choreographer's son, Augustin Maillot, nod towards 1950s Hollywood glamour. The score is a patchwork of Shostakovich, mostly off-cuts from his film music, peppering the ballet with sardonic punch. Right from the raucous opening “A spin through Moscow” from Cheryomushki, the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra played with real panache under conductor Igor Dronov.

Olga Smirnova (Bianca) and Artemy Belyakov (Baptista) © Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre
Olga Smirnova (Bianca) and Artemy Belyakov (Baptista)
© Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre

Maillot's choreography takes the classical tradition and twists it askew. The two main couples dance contrasting pas de deux. Olga Smirnova's sassy Bianca may hide behind her tears, but there's no doubt she's the one calling the shots in her relationship with Semyon Chudin's Lucentio. In their Act I pas – to the bittersweet Gadfly Romance – Chudin was like a timid deer, necking and nose-waggling with Smirnova leading to a series of carefree lifts, eventually winning her affections by presenting a book of poetry – Shakespeare sonnets, I hope. Their highlight was the Act II pas, tender and elegant against a backdrop of luscious strings and a trio of smouldering saxophones (also from The Gadfly). Smirnova was lovely here, soft and supple.

Vladislav Lantratov (Petruchio) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Katharina) © Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre
Vladislav Lantratov (Petruchio) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Katharina)
© Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre

The pairing of Ekaterina Krysanova's sour Katharina and tousle-haired Vladislav Lantratov's cocky Petruchio provided a different flavour. How to choreograph a pas de deux where one of the participants really doesn't want to dance? Maillot solves this brilliantly in a series of push-me-pull-you drags and lifts as Katharina taunts, snaps, lunges and kicks her way out of hold in their first act duel. Fists clenched or arms crossed, a defiant Krysanova was subjected to a variety of lifts. Things turn darker in Act II, a psychological battle of wills to the spikier music of Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony (derived from the traumatic Eighth String Quartet). Lantratov forces his hand between Krysanova's legs and hoists her up triumphantly before she succumbs. Things turn “too darn hot” and they end up cavorting under the bedsheets.

Among the ensemble, Anna Tikhomirova's Housekeeper particularly caught the eye. She wandered onto the Covent Garden stage before the curtain, removing her high heels and donning ballet slippers before welcoming Dronov to the pit. Her fluid bends and lunges betrayed an avaricious nature, swooping for one of Katharina's suitors, the wealthy Gremio. Artemy Belyakov impressed as the girls' put-upon father, Baptista.

Tea for two: Olga Smirnova (Bianca) and Semyon Chudin (Lucentio) © Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre
Tea for two: Olga Smirnova (Bianca) and Semyon Chudin (Lucentio)
© Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre

At ninety minutes, Maillot's Shrew is all too short, but what more witty and irreverent a finale than the Tahiti Trot – in which each of the couples celebrates by taking “tea for two”. The humour continued into the curtain calls, Krysanova generously drawing a rose from her bouquet to present to Lantratov only to snatch it away at the last minute. Wunderbar! 

*****