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Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

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John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler

Boston Ballet

Boston Opera House

October 22 & 24, 2015

Men balancing on each other like surfboards, women perching precariously on their partners’ napes, a human truss forming from a lattice of dancers – these were some of the radical visual treats greeting the audience in this season’s opener at the Boston Ballet. A surprising 40 years since its inception, this production marks the first performance by a North American company of John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

The piece is one of several by Neumeier that celebrate his love of Mahler’s symphonies. So as not to distract from the purity of the relationship between music and movement, dancers are clad in minimalist leotards, and any narrative is left largely to the audience’s own interpretation. The focus is thus on the rich visual palettes presented in each of the piece’s six movements, which correspond to different stages of life such as love and loss. Neumeier demonstrates an incredibly broad vocabulary in posing and permutating human form, in styles ranging from classical to avant-garde. The movements Yesterday and Night are particularly inventive, creating geometries with one dancer balancing another on his head, or groups leaning pensively in varied angles and directions.

The geometry that makes this work so ingenious is unfortunately also what makes it a challenge to perform well, as the dancers have to ensure continuity from one unique movement to another. Sadly the corps appeared to falter between each pose, repositioning themselves or jerkily shifting their weight in ways that detracted from the momentum of the piece. This was especially apparent in Yesterday, with motions that were much more foreign and physically challenging. Moreover, without a strong narrative, the piece lacked the support of a thematic thread to hold its discontinuous shapes together. The task then fell largely to the individual dancers to imbue the steps with a meaning of their own in order to carry the piece forward emotionally.

On Thursday’s premiere night, Erica Cornejo proved the most adept at this — infusing the space between each step with a vitality that brought out the dynamic beauty of Neumeier’s work. Paulo Arrais, in Saturday’s second cast, immersed the audience in the journey of the Central Figure (the lone dancer that traverses all the movements). Where Thursday’s Lasha Khozashvili took a more stoic and indifferent approach to the role, Arrais visibly morphed in response to the styles of different dancers and around him. Specific mention should also be made of Irlan Silva, who brought a refreshing fluidity and sense of purpose to the stage. Overall, it was through these gifted dance interpreters that the piece succeeded, elevating it from simple geometry into a story about the maturation of mankind instead.