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Gary Sloan

A still shot of Dark Profiles by José Mateo, the first of three pieces in the ballet production Shadows Fleeting.

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Shadows Fleeting

By José Mateo Ballet Theatre

The Sanctuary Theatre

Oct. 4–27, 2013

The José Mateo Ballet Theatre of Cambridge opened its 28th season with a performance of Shadows Fleeting, the first of five ballet repertory performances of the 2013–2014 season. Shadows Fleeting features three unique works — Dark Profiles (2001), Covens (2006), and Vanished Verses (premiering this season) — by José Mateo, the company’s impresario, choreographer and artistic director. The recurrent theme of the night was exploring the darker side of Mateo’s provocatively expressed repertory.

The night’s opener, Dark Profiles, is set to one of Beethoven’s lesser-known and least accessible string quartets, Grosse (Grand) Fuge in B Flat. The work’s choreography, like its accompaniment, is complex and perplexing. Madeleine Bonn’s graceful solo performance morphs into a touch-less duet with Ivaylo Alexiev, who frames Bonn’s ballet with the authoritative flair of his own movements. Theirs is followed by three, increasingly more dramatic and subtly erotic duets as Beethoven’s Fuge surges ahead. The seven-ballerina chorus finale seems a bit underwhelming, and is unable to keep pace with the forcefully-joyous crescendo of the maestro’s Grand Fuge.

The second act, Covens, features James MacMillan’s more accessible and resonant Symphony No. 3, a surprisingly good choice for ballet stripped of its grandeur and elitist embellishments. The only discernible plot line of the night’s program seems to suggest Angie DeWolf’s fleeting flirtations with David Dubois in a world of silence and tranquility. Their duet performance is passionate yet elegant. The forceful and powerful striding entrance of Elisabeth Scherer forebodes a more tragic fate for the lovebirds. As drumbeats roll on, shadows fleeting enter and exit the stage with higher and higher velocities. What appears to be a mob of covens eventually occupies the whole stage, forming a cornucopia of ballet figures exhausting their stamina.

The finale is the world premiere of Vanished Verses, choreographed by Mateo, as he candidly admits, in less than two weeks of rehearsals, and set to the crisp, clean, virtuosic tonality of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite in D Major. The plotless emotional amalgamation starts with the full cast rhythmically dancing to the precise cadence of Bach’s joyous piece. Formations were imprecise, and there were a few seemingly near-collisions here and there, but Mateo’s mastery of the art of choreographing fleeting intimacy in motion is evident in the next four duets and, in particular, in those with Scherer and Keith. Elisabeth Scherer personifies the soul of Mateo choreography perhaps better than any other. She looks nothing like the classical ballerina — who is dainty, fragile and elastic to contortion — rather, she “feels” solid, powerful, and imposing, especially given the audience’s proximity to the dancers, and moves with the fluidity, elegance, and regal poise and aplomb of a cruising Rolls Royce. There is nothing heavy, forced or tortured about her movements.

To appreciate Vanishing Verses, one must resist the temptation to dissect the duets to their technical details. To be sure, the jumps are not as high and the turns not as sharp, as one might expect, and there are even one or two wobbly pirouettes. However, by Mateo’s use of reverse eroticism, by stripping the men to their underwear while the women remain fully clothed, and subtle and infrequent touching, he manages to vividly convey a sense of provisional intimacy between the couples without resorting to long gazes or convoluted lifts and dips.

The venue, the Sanctuary Theatre, is nested within the walls of the imposing New Gothic architecture of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square. However, the all-white, sparse set design, and the minimalist décor, juxtaposed with cabaret-style seating right onto the stage, give the interior spaces a very deep intimate feel, where one almost feels the pulsation of the dancers’ breathing, the palpitation of their heart beats, and the condensation of sweats on their foreheads.

Mateo’s ballet productions may lack the weight and monumentality of classical ballet, but he attempts to compensate for this with his daring originality, frontal intimacy, and choreographed deconstruction of ballet to its essential forms, without puffy costumes, elaborate decorations or glittery ornamentations.

If the legacy of the legendary Ballets Russes is sometimes described as “when art danced with music,” then the legacy of a quarter-century of José Mateo’s Ballet may very well be described as “when bare movement romanced with music.”