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Dancers witg Italy’s Aterballetto perform on stage.Alfredo Anceschi

The international importance of Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur can be summed up in one word – Aterballetto. Before this past weekend, the one and only time this lionized Italian contemporary ballet company had appeared in Canada was in Toronto in 1987. Now, 26 years later, it chooses to make its second-ever Canadian appearance at this 10-day festival in Saint-Sauveur, a resort town north of Montreal.

Founded in the municipality of Reggio Emilia, between Bologna and Milan, in 1979, Aterballetto is Italy's most famous contemporary ballet company. It was the first Italian company created independent of its own ballet-opera house, and perhaps because of that, it is comfortably nomadic and has become Italy's touring ambassador of dance around the world.

For the FASS performances, Aterballetto sent 10 of its 18 dancers in an all-Mauro Bigonzetti program. Bigonzetti, arguably Italy's top choreographer, was Aterballetto's artistic director from 1997 to 2007, moving to the role of principal choreographer until 2012. Earlier, he was a company dancer for 10 years.

The audience here went crazy for Aterballetto. It was an instant love-in, and for good reason: Bigonzetti is a very sophisticated choreographer. The clever program included excerpts from five Bigonzetti works, which offered viewers keen insights into both his choreographic signature and his dance diversity. There were no bows between the pieces, which gave a seamless flow to the evening.

The Aterballetto dancers are known for their beautifully schooled, fluid bodies, and Bigonzetti uses this attribute to make them look especially stunning. Embedded in his choreography are elongated stretches that give the illusion of movement pouring out of the body. Precise placement gives a polished shine to the dance steps, while angles and flexes of the torso and limbs present visual surprises and delights. In his wrap-around partnering, Bigonzetti loves to combine a tangle of bodies with dangerous overhead lifts.

What makes a Bigonzetti work so fascinating is how his striking ballet-based vocabulary can manifest itself into different moods.

The cool purity of Come Un Respiro, set to music by Handel, looks totally different from the earthy, raw quality of Cantata, inspired by Renaissance Neapolitan peasant songs. The mellow, laid-back romance of Elvis Costello's Almost Blue is contrasted with the amusing encounters in Rossini Cards, capturing perfectly the brightness of the composer's music.

For me, the defining moment was Romeo and Juliet, set to Prokofiev's famous ballet score. In a brilliant coup de théâtre, Bigonzetti has designed the dance to be an endless parade of rapturous pas de deux. Rather than one couple, there are many as successive waves of movement erupt in the terrible beauty of doomed love.

The always popular Les Ballet Jazz de Montréal closed the festival with a hit-and-miss program.

Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto's Fuel, set to Julia Wolfe's industrial music, showed little originality in its desire to present recharging energy. French choreographer Benjamin Millepied's duet Closer, to Philip Glass's Mad Rush, was an attractive if repetitive romantic duet beautifully performed by Celine Cassone and Alexander Hille.

The BJM evening ended with American-Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall's amusing Harry, one of his epic, multiepisode, dance-theatre pieces set to a potpourri score of big band songs, folk music and opera. The character of Harry is always facing death, but life carries on in spite of its many obstacles.