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GENE SCHIavone

Rie Ichikawa struggles in the embrace of black curtain during the performance of Jirí Kylián’s Bella Figura.

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★★★★✩

Close to Chuck

Boston Ballet Company

The Boston Opera House

Through Mar. 2

“Wow” — the clearly audible voice of an awed child elicited muffled chuckles from the audience members around us. She hit the nail on the head — we all felt the same.

Boston Ballet’s latest offering is a trio of one-act pieces by eminent contemporary choreographers that takes the viewer on a gripping emotional journey. The first piece, C. to C. (Close to Chuck) reborn, by Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer Jorma Elo, premiered in 2007 at the American Ballet Theatre in New York. It celebrates the American artist Chuck Close, who is best known for his large-scale portraits, some of which are hyper-realistic or pixelated into colorful, globular cells.

Close is affected by prosopagnosia (face blindness), which greatly impairs his ability to recognize faces, but helps sustains his artistic drive for portraiture. In 1988 Close suffered from a spinal artery collapse and is now paralyzed from the waist down. But he has been able to continue creating his art with the aid of a brush-holding device attached to his wrist and forearm.

An important basis for C. to C. reborn is the relationship between Close and the composer Philip Glass, who have been friends and collaborators since the 1960s. Over the years Close featured Glass in a number of important artworks, and in 2005, at the request of the musician Bruce Levingston, Glass “returned the favor” by composing A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close. C. to C. reborn is set to this piece. Fittingly, Levingston is the solo pianist playing for the Boston Ballet’s performances.

In C. to C. reborn, three couples take the stage, as well as a fourth, the pianist and piano on the left hand side, visually displaying the link between dance and music. The lighting is stark and dramatic, illuminating every perfectly controlled muscle, as well as the sheer white of the sheet music. The dancers movements’ vary seamlessly between smooth and stiff, sometimes robotic, sometimes jellyfish-like, but constantly engaging and charged. Their costumes, by designer Ralph Rucci, are fashionable floor-length black leather-like skirts (with flaps that open disconcertingly to reveal a portrait of Close) and mesh tops with black crosses. At one point, the curtains are raised to reveal Close’s colorful and characteristic self-portrait, and his eyes bore into the audience, watching them watch the dancers. There is an atmosphere of sci-fi with a solemn and intimate ending, as a line of dancers reach to touch the pianist on the shoulder, flaps raised to show a line of Closes.

The second performance is the world premiere of Resonance, the first ballet commissioned of José Martinez by a North American company. Martinez is a renowned Spanish dancer and choreographer, who danced for many years for the Paris Opera Ballet and has been artistic director of the Spanish National Dance Company since 2010.

The music for Resonance is from Franz Liszt’s Études Transcendental, and is performed by two solo pianists. Again, the pianists and their pianos are on the stage, but this time they are only intermittently revealed. The set is a moving maze of white walls, with larger-than-life shadows dancing and intersecting on them, gently teasing the viewer about where something or someone is and how fast they are moving, what is real and permanent, and what is a fleeting illusion. At times I felt this was an unnecessary distraction. For example, when two walls forming a corner slowly swing around to reveal the dancers moving inside, it is difficult to focus on the single female dancer who is twirling in the spotlight at the front of the stage. At other times, however, I thought the effect was used powerfully. For instance, the gap through which a couple dances off stage quickly disappears as the walls move together, as if erasing the evidence that the couple was there at all.

The third and final piece is the popular Bella Figura by Jirí Kylián, a Czech choreographer. First presented in 1995 by the Nederlands Dans Theater, Bella Figura had its North American debut at the Boston Ballet in 2011, and the company has performed it several times since then.

The beginning of the piece catches the audience unawares, as the lights remain on and the curtains remain open. On stage, below two suspended naked dolls, nine dancers move in heavy silence, seemingly preoccupied. As the lights dim, the curtains descend, and a series of scenes begins.

In the first, a man lies supine, his head towards the audience, wrapping himself hypnotically, and a topless woman struggles in the folds of an ensnaring black curtain, her face contorted and her gestures entreating. In another, two topless women wearing bustled red skirts play-fight in slow motion, neither ever touching the other. In the final scene, flickering fires form the dramatic backdrop to a slow duet. The dancing is highly eloquent, sometimes suggesting brokenness and pain, occasionally invoking humor, and expressing protection, support and comfort at other times.

The dancers often jerk like broken dolls, jutting out one hip aggressively, suddenly dropping a forearm to hang forlornly, or shaking their hands spastically. Other times, a dancer holds a hand to another’s forehead, or calmingly pushes down an overwrought shoulder. Silence is used to good effect, and the music, a compilation that includes pieces by Lukas Foss and Vivaldi, complements the urgency and emotion of the dancers’ movements.

Close to Chuck delivers an evening of dance that highlights the versatility, skill and dynamism of Boston Ballet’s dancers, and demonstrates the creativity and range of contemporary styles — a challenge and a pleasure to watch.