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theatre review

A Month in the Country is part of the Winter Mixed Program.Aleksandar Antonijevic

This program from the National Ballet of Canada is one of extremes. On one hand, there is a good old-fashioned story told in classical style. On the other, a cutting-edge work by an avant-garde choreographer. Together they represent an evening split with personalities – one that reminds the audience what a rich art form they are taking in.

The late Sir Frederick Ashton created A Month in the Country for the Royal Ballet in 1976. The work is based on Ivan Turgenev's 1855 play of the same name, and was last staged by the National 17 years ago. This performance is a significant revival of a modern classic.

Needless to say, like much of Russian literature, the storyline is bleak. Ashton has condensed the number of characters and made the plot more melodramatic.

The events take place at the country house of the elderly Yslaev (Tomas Schramek) and his young wife, Natalia Petrovna (Xiao Nan Yu). A tutor, Beliaev (Guillaume Côté), for their young son Kolia (Francesco Gabriele Frola) is the lynch pin.

Natalia's teenage ward Vera (Elena Lobsanova) moons after Beliaev, who in turn, is attracted to Natalia. When Vera catches the two in a romantic embrace, she denounces them. Other key characters include Natalia's ardent admirer Rakitin (Patrick Lavoie) and the housemaid Katia (Alexandra MacDonald).

Ashton is one of modern ballet's best storytellers, particularly noted for his ability to create real people through movement. While the ballet is certainly watchable, it also has a dated quality. The characters seem too one-dimensional, the plot too superficial.

Ashton has taken the position that Beliaev is like a fox let loose in the henhouse. Three pas de deux anchor the piece. We see Beliaev's lighthearted folk dance with the maid Katia, his more refined and gentle duet with the adoring Vera, and his passionate encounter with Natalia.

The National dancers perform the characters and steps in exquisite fashion, but the ballet does feel like an antique. Special mention should be made of Frola, a representative of the virtuoso technical whiz kids whom artistic director Karen Kain is bringing into the company.

Aszure Barton created Watch Her for the National in 2009, and this return confirms its genius. The piece is multilayered, multifaceted, and because it is original to the National, the dancers fit the choreography like hand to glove.

The key to the work is Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach's Dialogues on Stabat Mater. The score cuts between Pergolesi's original baroque music and Auerbach's edgy modernist interludes. Barton's ballet seems to follow the sacred and profane viewpoints inherent in Auerbach's composition.

There are three female soloists who seem to represent different facets of love (Sonia Rodriguez, Xiao Nan Yu and Jenna Savella). Each has her own throughline amid the whirligig of the ensemble and their constant ebb and flow of exits and entrances.

The surge of motion of the group is contrasted by the solos of the women. Barton, however, has also placed the leads in duets and group numbers to anchor them into the passing parade of life.

Rodriguez is the siren and temptress. Yu represents the faithful lover, while Savella is the virginal innocent. And then there is the watcher (Kevin D. Bowles) and his mysterious impact on the group as a whole.

Is the ballet taking place in the watcher's mind? Yannik Larivée's set would seem to indicate so – giant walls peppered with narrow doors and oddly placed windows. In fact, the piece begins with Bowles entering the set through one of the widows.

This evening of contrasts shows off a company that can perform classical and contemporary ballet with equal aplomb.