In the 1850 Turgenev play A Month in the Country people talk and talk – about what they do not feel more than what they do. The wife and mother Natalia, for example, tells her long-rebuffed “friend” Rakitin how dull her heart has become, when she might have said she was in love with her son’s young tutor Beliaev. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old Vera says she is not ready for marriage, not that the very same man obsesses her.
Indirection, much less clouds of inner conflict, does not bode well for a ballet. But in his 40-minute condensation of Turgenev’s three-hour play to three well-chosen Chopin pieces, Ashton converts Russian equivocation into straightforward passion without blighting the drama’s diverse blooms of rapture.
The 1976 ballet, now in its American Ballet Theatre debut on a thrilling triple bill with Mark Morris and Balanchine works, begins by introducing our cast of characters in solos. With extravagant arms, plucky feet and head a-swivel, Julie Kent showcased Natalia’s vanity and need for attention. Rakitin (Jared Matthews), her designated admirer, did not dance; he accompanied or watched from the sidelines. Vera (Gemma Bond) executed a faster, brighter version of Natalia’s steps, but only for her own pleasure. The girl had no special audience and needed none. The whole household gazed on Beliaev (a mustachioed Roberto Bolle), who proceeded as if alone, stretching like a panther after a nap, innocuous for now.
The solos gave way to duets – and the heart of the drama. What variety of relationship Ashton discovers in the pas de deux! Beliaev and the maid (Stella Abrera) clasped hands folk dance-style: this little interlude would conform to prescribed “steps” appropriate to the maid and her circumstantial wooers. Vera and Beliaev began companionably, but the momentum of their dancing overcame them. Natalia and Beliaev were passionate from the start, their bodies enfolding, their hands enlaced. She lay back as he lifted her high and rocked her close. She parted her taut legs like kissing lips.
Bolle was a fine partner if a bit stiff as a lover. Kent, who I worried would lapse into melancholy, as is her wont with romantic heroines, was perfect: by turns silly, rash, transported, exultant and bereft.