Not many years ago ballet dancers would have eaten lard or cut off their toes rather than engage with contemporary dance. Then Sylvie Guillem leapt the divide and gave it her Midas touch. Now, as evidenced by Two : Four : Ten, an evening of choreography at the Coliseum by Russell Maliphant (Guillem's choreographer of choice), others are queuing up to do the same, happy, suddenly, to forgo body-con Lycra and show-off steps to embrace dowdy shirts and chinos.
Royal Ballet principal Ivan Putrov opens proceedings with Knot, partnered by Daniel Proietto, a Maliphant regular. As the title suggests, it's about the ways two bodies can interlink, testing strength and resistance. To the patter of fast drumming in a score by Matteo Fargion, the two men advance and retreat, circling one another like prowling animals, alert to opportunity. One manipulates the other's arm like a crank-handle, vaults off the other's elbow, or mounts his back like a ladder. As an experiment in male synthesis, it is cool but uninvolving.
Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, the retiring stars of English National Ballet, bring more heat to the love duet Sheer. Silhouetted against a bronze wall, they move smoothly through Maliphant's floor-moves, but miss the pantherine stealth that characterised the premiere, eight years ago, when Maliphant performed the piece with Dana Fouras, his wife. Oaks and Edur come into their own in the lifts: the air is a ballerina's territory, and Oaks inhabits it seamlessly, as if there's no difference between it and the floor.
But the evening's highlight comes in the brief Two x Two, which begins and continues in such profound darkness that the Coliseum's emergency house lights flicker on, no doubt to the annoyance of lighting designer Michael Hulls, whose big number this is.
Two spots of golden light, 20ft apart, pick out the dancers, or rather, little bits of them: a wrist here, an ankle there. Otherwise all is black, and tension builds from the fact of nothing much is happening. Nothing, that is, until, whoosh, Andy Cowton's hefty rock beat kicks in and the arms and ankles begin to lash and thrash like licks of flame. Retinal after-blur – as with a Catherine wheel on bonfire night – is integral to the experience, and like every firework display, it's over too soon.
The show should have ended there. The reprise of the 35-minute Critical Mass looked over-long and lumbering, with guest Adam Cooper bulkily over-stretched against Maliphant, who at 48 is still a thing of quicksilver. Plus, the piece seemed to have lost some of its clout. Back in 1998 it was a novelty to see two blokes in civvies engaging so intimately on stage. It made a statement about male friendship. Now it's a commonplace of contemporary choreography – even in ballet – and if that's partly down to Maliphant, all power to him. But it left this otherwise interesting programme feeling flat.
By contrast, there was an excitable tension about the return of the Royal Ballet's Giselle, which marked the debut in the title role for a favourite ballerina, Marianela Nuñez. A natural for the sunny first half of the ballet (this dancer being famous for a smile that could light the West End in a power cut), Nuñez was clearly going to be more challenged by the ballet's half-time switch to ethereal gloom.
Yet in the event it was her Act II – the ghostly white act in which Giselle's betrayed spirit appears to her cheating lover, Albrecht – that lingers in the memory, remarkable for the way this dancer managed to blanch her face and body of all its usual dynamism, yet find in the role an unusual sorrowing strength. It helped that she had a magnificent Albrecht in Carlos Acosta, who played the entire act semi-conscious as if enveloped in an airy dream, punctuated by nightmares when borne down upon by the murderous, accusing Wilis – the Royal corps at its furiously well-drilled best.
'Giselle': in rep to 26 May (020-7304 4000)Reuse content