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In early March, I saw a modern dance production “Poor Liza” by the Theatre of Nations at the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow. Premiered last October in the same theatre during the Territory Festival of Contemporary Arts, this work is by the Russian choreographer Alla Sigalova. Previously I had only seen one ballet by Sigalova during the 2006 Mariinsky Ballet Festival — the solo “Concerto Grosso“ set to Handel?s music created for Igor Zelensky.

„Poor Liza”, which lasts for about 75 minutes without an interval, is set to the chamber opera composed in the 1970s by the composer Leonid Desyatnikov. Alexei Ratmansky?s ballet “Russian Seasons” for the New York City Ballet is also set to this composer. Alexei Miroshnichenko has also created two ballets for the Mariinsky Ballet — “Wie der Alte Leiermann“ and „Du Cote de chez Swan” — to Desyatnikov?s music.

Desyatnikov?s chamber opera “Poor Liza” is based on the classic sentimental tale by the Russian author Nikolai Karamzin published in 1792. The plot of “Poor Liza” (Bednaia Liza) is about the seduction by a young nobleman Erast of a young girl of lower social origins. Liza?s emotions on her jaded lover early in the story bring to mind the relationship between Tatiana and Eugene Onegin. As their relationship develops, Liza gives herself to Erast completely. He however loses interest in her, and leaves her to join war service. At the end Liza commits suicide after discovering that Erast has betrayed her, as he is engaged to marry someone else.

Alla Sigalova has choreographed a modern dance work to Desyatnikov?s chamber opera starring the famous Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova (who starred in the 2003 film “Good Bye Lenin!“) and the Bolshoi soloist Andrei Merkuriev. This piece depicts the development of the love between the two characters Liza and Erast. One doesn?t need to have read Karamzin?s story to comprehend the drama in Sigalova?s piece.

The story has been transposed to a contemporary setting and takes place in a cinema during a midnight screening. The sets consist of a big cinema screen in the centre and two on the side which sometimes project shadows as well as films of Khamatova, and two rows of chairs. The costumes are mostly in black and white.

Sigalova?s choreography consists basically of a series of pas de deux which depict the heightening intensity of their relationship, as well as solos for both artists in between the duets. Dances follow each other smoothly. The pas de deux are rich and varied in emotional colouring. The choreography for the solos is interesting as well. “Poor Liza“ is an extremely theatrical, dramatic and absorbing production.

In the beginning, Khamatova, dressed in black, is watching a film in a cinema. Soon she is struggling in fear as she seems to be reliving a dream. Then Merkuriev enters the room briefly before exiting. After his second entrance he sits next to her, and they watch the film together. They then dance a warm and tender pas de deux, at the end of which he kisses her. But one gets the feeling that it is he who is in control throughout. In the second duet he becomes violent at one stage and terrifies her, covering her head with his hand.

Later there is a semi-naked pas de deux, as their passion heats up. Then they put their clothes back on and perform another duet. Later after a powerful solo by Merkuriev, they start fighting. He becomes tired of her and leaves her. She dances an agitated solo accompanied by her own shadows on the screens. He returns in a white shirt for the final pas de deux at the end of which she collapses and dies in his arms.

Chulpan Khamatova, a most beautiful actress who however hasn?t had much formal dance training, danced amazingly fluently throughout the evening. She is so multi-talented. Recently she has even learned to skate and performed together with Olympic champion Roman Kostomatrov in a free-skating routine. Khamatova had delicacy and beauty. Her acting was nuanced and emotionally intense. She conveyed touchingly Liza?s innocence in the beginning, and her intensifying passion and incessant desires on Erast later on.

It?s good for her to have such a fine partner in Andrei Merkuriev in the duets. The male role suited him perfectly. He has always been an excellent dramatic dancer in the Mariinsky and now the Bolshoi, and is well known for his strong partnering skills. Sigalova?s choreography is extremely rewarding for him and this created role has brought out the best of his artistry as a dance actor and a partner.

Merkuriev?s dancing had a strong raw power as well as physical agility. His gestures and arm movements had weight and gravitas. His eyes also made a strong dramatic impact. It was an outstanding performance.

„Poor Liza” is an original, stimulating, and powerful work of dance theatre. I look forward to have the chance to see it again in the future. Incidentally this piece will be performed in St. Petersburg in late April and then in Moscow again in early June.