The Mariinsky Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

Russian purebreds in a modern twist
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The Independent Culture

The company formerly known as the Kirov may not have fielded all of its hottest dancers on this latest visit, but even its lowest-ranking thoroughbreds make pit ponies of other companies' stars. Long, lean and articulated in parts of the body others don't seem to possess, these St Petersburg-trained uber-athletes have long ruled the world in terms of bred-in-the-bone technique, even while their repertory was stuck in the past.

Now, making their first appearance at Sadler's Wells, and under a new director, Yuri Fateyev, they have chucked out the chintz in attempt to prove their contemporary credentials. Gone are the 19th-century blockbusters in favour of works by William Forsythe, a choreographer who, in the late 1980s, blew classical dance right out of the water.

Yet – was it inevitable? – not even the most radical of the pieces on Tuesday's opening bill could summon more than a shadow of the impact they once had. The subverting of performance convention which once seemed so shocking – starting a piece before the houselights are down, doctoring the recorded music so you think the speakers are on the blink – now seems merely meddlesome.

Forsythe's choreography, however, looks transformed, as the Russians fling themselves into its skewed angles, wrenching turns and over-toppling balances with what appears to be no heed for life or limb. Steptext, the opening work, a fist-fight for three men and a woman, comes off best, maybe because it's the closest Forsythe gets to a boy-meets-girl scenario, a thing the Mariinsky understands. Weirdly, too, with its angry, bunched-fist semaphore – for which read: (from the men) "Do you tango?"(and from the woman) "In your dreams, buster!" – it also makes a nod to the 19th-century heyday of ballet mime. Here, though, all the old gendered behaviour is knocked for six. As male tries to pay court to female, she roughly pushes him away. Entrances and exits are graceless and perfunctory. Bad temper is the order of the day.

Yet for all the Russians' relish of this table-turning they somehow misunderstand the mood. I missed the insolent casualness with which Sylvie Guillem used to shrug off the men's attentions when the Royal did this piece. Ekaterina Kondaurova, a 6ft redhead with sinews like pins of steel, smouldered magnificently, but seemed to care too much.

Approximate Sonata is more about dance itself, starting with a male dancer locked into stroke-victim distortions, who gradually frees up under the tutelage of a female partner. Then follow more duets, lit by a chill grey light, which progress with a sense of wonder as if testing the limbs' possibilities for the very first time. For once, I felt the want of company principals. Technique was never in question; authority was in short supply.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is just as described: a giddy whirl of fiddly little steps, classical pastiche, in fact, at triple speed. Here at last the Mariinsky girls were in their natural element. They even had tutus, of sorts, allbeit resembling tap washers, and Olesya Novikova spun and flicked her toes so fast she threatened to frisbee off into the wings.

In the middle somewhat elevated concluded the bill, another work that was a hit for Guillem and the Royal Ballet when first made, and again Kondaurova led the attack. Again, too, the Russians' old-school training revealed the true lineage of Forsythe's steps. Beneath the glowering undulations, beyond the spine-juddering score, here were ballet's past and present, root and branch in one.

The 'Focus on Forsythe' season continues at Sadler's Wells (0844 412 4300)