Shining amid the dark in Mateo’s season opener
CAMBRIDGE - José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s season opener, “Broken Shadows,’’ takes a walk on the dark side with three ballets spanning nearly two decades. But it’s not all gloom and doom - this is a strong, powerful program, totally engaging and resonant, with an undercurrent of hope beneath the despair, and traces of humor to lighten the load. It is also a musically ambitious program driven by three masterpieces of 20th-century composition.
The darkest work is the provocative “Circles’’ (2010). Sybil Geddes portrays an isolated woman who seems to teeter on the brink of madness. We first see her slumped on a set of stairs, tracing circles in the dust with her finger. In contrast to her dress of institutional gray, Madeleine Bonn’s red dress brings the color of life to the stage, and it is unclear if she is Geddes’s alter ego or a vision.
But when three couples flood the space with swirling, turning leaps and lifts that crest in soaring arcs, the work takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality. Circles abound - dizzying spins, rings of pirouettes, développés that loop up and around. Geddes, partnered by Shane Tice, transitions from tightly wound, clenched fist anger to debilitating despair in a heartbeat, her erect posture melting in submission, head bowed.
“Circles’’ is set to Alfred Schnittke’s spare, strident Concerto for Piano and Strings, and it’s a brilliant fit. With its ominous silences and moody slashing strings, it seems tailor-made for Mateo’s choreography, which in turn gives the music potent context.
The other recent work, “Sound Secrets’’ (2010), doesn’t fare as well. Set to Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the choreography picks up on the score’s brooding atmospherics, but never quite matches its unbridled energy and folk-tinged weightiness. The skips and spins are a little too light, too genteel. Vague emotional tension underplays the duets and trios of the first and third movements, but the more rustic second and fourth movements bring the work spirit. The lengthy duet between Angie DeWolf and Mark Kehlet Schou tap the playfulness in the music, with occasional saucy gestures, off-balance lifts, sharp-angled limbs, and fleet unison footwork. Mateo seeds their flirtatious coupling with dynamic accents coinciding with bright strikes of the xylophone.
“Isle of the Dead’’ (1992), set to Rachmaninoff’s lush, romantic symphonic poem of the same name, is a company staple that never looks stale. It grabs you from the moment overhead spots pierce the darkness, constraining 12 dancers in individual pools of light. Their unison lunges, extensions and deep backward bends have the air of communal ritual until one dancer - the quicksilver Bonn - breaks free in a burst of panicky rebellion. She and Jacob Louis Hoover are the central couple amid sweeping ensemble work that sends dancers surging and flowing into layered, quickly shifting patterns that coalesce and dissolve. At one point, they sequentially melt to the floor, legs opening wide as they roll, tracing gentle arcs like cresting waves.
The work evokes a community struggling to overcome devastation, but even in its peril, there is hope. At one point, Bonn is draped upside down over Hoover’s shoulder, the epitome of vulnerability and submission. But at the end, she alone is upright, reaching toward the light.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.