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Alla Sigalova is one of Moscow's treasures. As a choreographer, a director and a former dancer, she has a way of cutting across boundaries — in fact, she breaks them down. And my hat is always off to anyone who refuses to play by the rules.

Sigalova's latest show, “Poor Liza,“ produced by the Theater of Nations, takes an old opera based on a very old story, casts a dramatic actress and a ballet dancer in the leads and comes up with a tale told gorgeously. I'm not sure what the genre is; what I am sure of is that it doesn't matter. There's much dance, of course, but “Poor Liza” is structured and performed as a dramatic piece.

„Poor Liza” is a short story written at the end of the 18th century by Nikolai Karamzin, one of the first “modern” writers in Russian literature. It's a sentimental tale about a peasant girl seduced and abandoned by a self-centered young aristocrat. It had everything a story needed in 1792 — sentimental tears, social injustice, personal fortitude and more sentimental tears. Leonid Desyatnikov, still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1976, wrote his first opera based on the tale. It hasn't been performed much since — and now Sigalova has cast it in a completely new light.

Sigalova's “Poor Liza” is supremely 21st century. It's black and white. It's stark. The sentimentality has been tossed out; the tears have not. It is set in a film theater, a place of dreams, isolation and, paradoxically enough, intimacy. A woman and a man. They meet, something happens, they part. What, if anything, is left?

Essentially, there is nothing left of Karamzin in this wordless tale. Desyatnikov, with music that sounds rather conventional at this point in time, is also pretty much shunted off to the side. Some of the strongest moments in the production are played out in silence broken only by the sounds of heavy breathing, the rustling of cloth, the clattering of a film reel being pulled through the spokes or of feet being dragged across the floor.

Sigalova and designer Nikolai Simonov focused all attention on the two performers, Chulpan Khamatova from the Sovremennik Theater and Andrei Merkuryev from the Mariinsky Ballet. The set is a crisp, transformable space with a couple rows of seats and four working screens. Lighting designer Vladislav Frolov uses shadow and light to emphasize the geometrical lines of Simonov's set and to support the black-and-white nature of the visuals. This could be something out of a film by Michelangelo Antonioni or something drawn from someone's dream.

Sigalova boiled the plot developments down to the bare minimum. The libretto designates Scene 5 as “Kiss”; Scene 6 as “Silence. Fear. Desire”; and Scene 8 as “She alone.” In short, the actors explore frames of mind and states of being rather than the events that bring them together and rend them asunder.

Forget all notions of peasants and social injustice. This is a classic portrayal of Woman Meets Man and everything that follows.

Khamatova displays extraordinary acrobatic skills, but she plays the piece with her soul. Her eyes, her expressions, her gentle and graceful hands — this is where her Liza is defined. She is a lively, thoughtful, intelligent, hopeful and sensitive young woman. But there is a whiff of tragedy floating in the air she breathes. She is a self-contained individual out in the world, waiting for the Great Event. When it comes, she is ready. A bit cautious, perhaps. But this Liza, whiling away her afternoons at the cinema, is up to the task of love when it falls — kerplop! — into her lap.

Merkuryev is bold and passionate — at least when passion is awakened. As men can do, he seems to have his sights set on the future, thus lacking the ability to focus clearly on the moment at hand.

In general, the story of all love affairs can be told in a single, unchanging narrative. But that is never what interests us - it is the details and the idiosyncrasies that make each of those seemingly monotonous stories absolutely unlike any other.

This is Sigalova's fine achievement: To take the story of Every Man and Every Woman, chisel it down to the bare basics and re-emerge with a unique, moving tale of one young woman who found what she was looking for and paid dearly for that privilege.

“Poor Liza” (Bednaya Liza), a production of the Theater of Nations, plays June 29, 30, July 1 and 2 at 7 p.m. at the Theater Na Maloi Bronnoi, located at 4 Malaya Bronnaya Ulitsa. Metro Pushkinskaya. Theatreofnations.ru. Tel. 629-5970, 629-3739. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.