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How Radiohead caught rock's ballet bug – and went viral

Thom Yorke's dance begins in silhouette before building to a convulsive climax. The latest Radiohead video, "Lotus Flower", has amassed more than 3.5 million YouTube hits since being uploaded on Friday. It looks like the nervous jitters of a madman. It is, in fact, the delicately choreographed work of one of modern dance's greatest talents.

The video, from The King of Limbs, the much-hyped Radiohead album released on Friday, was choreographed by Wayne McGregor. McGregor might not mean a lot to mainstream rock fans, but dance aficionados know him well, whether from his collaboration with The White Stripes for the Royal Ballet's 2006 production Chroma or teaching schoolchildren moves for a Harry Potter film.

Always distinctive – and often unnerving – McGregor's steps in "Lotus Flower" proved ripe for parody. YouTube wags have set Yorke's fits to the tune of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies", an upload whose own hits have now reached six figures. "The video is very typical of Wayne's work, very dysfunctional, it portrays someone who is slightly uneasy in their own skin," said Sadler's Wells artistic director Alistair Spalding, a long-time collaborator of McGregor's. "I would probably recognise it as Wayne's work even if I already hadn't known who had done it. It's a very interesting line to have taken, to use his moves on Thom Yorke himself rather than employ dancers."

McGregor, currently rehearsing with the Paris Opera Ballet, is no stranger to "crossover" choreography, having worked on a huge range of musicals, plays, ballet, modern companies and films. "I get bored very easily," he said. "So I always find challenges to keep myself awake."

McGregor's predilection for the mainstream mirrors a recent trend: in November, the New York City Ballet celebrated its 10th anniversary with choreographer Justin Peck working with perennially trendy singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. From Rihanna walking en pointe in the 2007 video of her hit track "Umbrella" to Kanye West's single "Runaway", released last October, featuring writhing dancers in tutus, high-profile acts are queueing up to indulge. In 2009, Lady Gaga collaborated with the Bolshoi Ballet for a performance piece at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. MGMT's video, "It's Working", sees ballerinas descend from the heavens to stand upon a dancer's shoulders, while British synth-pop duo Hurts employed ballerinas to twirl through "Better Than Love".

"It simply means classical and contemporary dance are becoming more mainstream," said Venezuelan choreographer Javier de Frutos, who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys on The Most Incredible Thing, a full-length dance work opening next month at Sadler's Wells. "The trend very solidly started with Kylie who worked with choreographer Rafael Bonachela two tours ago. That was a bold move which really paid off.

"It all goes in cycles. Everyone's shows seemed to have the same choreographer and looked generic and someone had to break the mould. And then there is a way of doing dance which makes it exciting for pop musicians to work. It's more a theatre of ideas than a generic show. It's a 21st-century method."

Directors have now whittled the method to perfection. "Since the advent of MTV directors have needed to develop a visual language as well as an aural one," Spalding said. "What's interesting at the moment are the genuinely interesting collaborations between pop and dance which are making it to the stage. It's like any contemporary artists working alongside each other: they will tend to work with their friends. It's like when Diaghilev would commission Stravinsky. Maybe today he would think about Radiohead."