Choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, artistic director of Italy’s Compagnia Aterballetto, brings two staples of 20th century ballet to McCarter Theater on Wednesday, November 2, and presents them on his own terms. "Petrouchka," choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923 and "Les Noces," choreographed by Michael Fokine in 1911, are among the signature works of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. With music by Igor Stravinsky, the two pieces are among the revered classics of 20th century ballet.

Although respect for the original productions makes some choreographers limit themselves to reconstructing the original pieces, Bigonzetti manages to be respectful without being fettered. When I ask him in an E-mail interview from Italy in what ways the pieces have become outdated, he says, "I think that an original choreography never gets outdated." Nevertheless, he has made many changes. "In fact," he says, "the only original thing is the music."

Bigonzetti sets "Petrouchka," a tale of humanoid puppets, in a clothing store instead of the original carnival. He replaces the original Harlequin with a young tough; his Columbine is a Barbie doll. In "Les Noces" Bigonzetti turns Nijinska’s peasant wedding into something more abstract and uses acrobatic movements; a recurring step requires a dancer to lean the head on the upturned arch of another dancer’s foot. Bigonzetti choreographed both works in 2002.

Although Aterballetto does not necessarily perform "Petrouchka" and "Noces" on the same program, Bigonzetti explains their pairing at McCarter. "I chose them because they are completely the opposite," he says. "One (Petrouchka) is a Russian fable; the other (Les Noces) is a rite. Moreover they are two masterpieces of the 20th century and they match very well together."

The Princeton performance is part of a North American tour that includes George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music’s "Next Wave Festival." Although the company was in Mexico in mid-October, it returned to Italy before the United States appearances. Frequent travelers, Aterballetto’s dancers have appeared in recent months in Hong Kong and Buenos Aires.

The name "Aterballetto" comes from the acronym based on the name "Association of Theaters of Emilia Romagna," the central Italian region outside of Rome. Founded in 1979 by Amadeo Amodio, Aterballetto is the only Italian ballet company not associated with an opera house. In 1997, after Amodio was dismissed, Bigonzetti succeeded him as artistic director.

Asked what distinguishes Aterballetto from other dance companies in Europe, Bigonzetti says, "Obviously every company has its peculiarities. One of Aterballetto’s is that 80 percent of the choreographies in its repertoire are creations of my own exclusively for the company, and for this reason it can be considered unique. Another peculiarity is its multiethnic composition."

When the Argentinian dance magazine "Balletin" asked Bigonzetti, "What is the distinctive characteristic of your company?" he replied, "The eyes, the look . . . the heart and emotion. Then, logically, the legs, the body. The eyes are the main thing when it comes to interpretation."

Aterballetto is known for its athleticism, and Bigonzetti welcomes the description of his company as athletic. Surprisingly, he does not stress technique with his dancers, at least not openly. Rather, he focuses on the inner life of each dancer. In choosing new dancers for the company he says he pays particular attention to "the eyes, how the person talks. Their feelings, how they listen. Dance and art are made with the senses. Art is life. Sensuality is something that puts a person in contact with the outside."

Physical appearance plays no role in the selection of dancers for the company. "I’m not interested in a definite physical type," Bigonzetti has been quoted as saying, "My company has short people, tall ones, even fat ones. That is what interests me."

Bigonzetti’s sense of ensemble determines also the selection process for new dancers. "I don’t have prescribed auditions," he says. "Those who are interested have to spend three days with us."

Bigonzetti was born in Rome in 1960. His father was a bus driver and his mother was a housewife. He became interested in dance early on. "My uncle was a dancer and from him I got the passion." A graduate of the Rome Opera School, he joined the opera company immediately and performed there as a solo dancer. He danced with Aterballetto from 1982 to 1993, and contributed to its choreography. "He excelled in those pieces in which he could display his dazzling stamina," says Dance magazine. In 1993 he left the company and pursued his dream of working as a choreographer with the most important European dance companies.

"Dancing began to bore me," Bigonzetti is quoted in Dance magazine. "I thought that it had exhausted all of its possibilities for me. But I felt that I had to do something else, and that something became a compulsion to choreograph." Working with the Rome Opera Ballet through Balletto di Toscana, and with Milan’s La Scala, Bigonzetti made a name for himself as a choreographer and attracted invitations from abroad.

"I stopped dancing when I was 33 years old because I didn’t feel stimulated in Italy," he is quoted in Balletin magazine. "And yet I had a desire to generate something interesting in my country and didn’t want to go outside. It’s my ideology. I thought that it would be very easy. But I encountered problems of all types: political, economic, and, above all, bureaucratic."

Working with Aterballetto, Bigonzetti’s creative process, as he describes it, guarantees high morale in the company. "A new piece comes out in direct connection with the dancers," he says. "For me what is very important is the contribution of the dancer to the creative work and how it develops in the rehearsal studio. Moreover, at the beginning of the creative process I work on the idea; the movement is the second phase; and later again come the steps."

Bigonzetti wastes no effort at trying to understand how he works. He has been quoted as saying, "The evolution of the internal process of creation is something very mysterious which I am not interested in discovering. Creation, art, in general is not an intellectual process. When the intellectual process takes priority over art, the art is very tiresome. I don’t have a method. I don’t believe in creative methods. The important thing could be the music, a person, or a book."

Indeed, the music that Bigonzetti uses for his dances tends to the architectural and the astringent. It cuts a wide swathe from Henry Purcell to Frank Zappa via J. S. Bach, George Frederick Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giacomo Rossini, Bela Bartok, John Cage, and Iannis Xenakis. Romantic music is a scanty entry in Bigonzettis’s choreography, though Leo Delibes and Sergei Rachmaninoff appear.

Bigonzetti’s choice of music bolsters the freshness of his dance. Some acts of musical daring retain a long-term shock effect. The chord that Stravinsky devised for Petrouchka (C major and F sharp major triads played together), despite its familiarity, still sounds jarring and newly-invented when you listen carefully.

Compagnia Aterballetto, Wednesday, November 2, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. American premiere of Les Noces (The Wedding) and Petroushka, two signature works of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes set to the visionary score of Stravinsky. $39 to $45. 609-258-2787.

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