Friday, October 14, 2011

Shadows of modern romance

A tableau on the Isle of the Dead.  Photo: Gary Sloan.
José Mateo remains as dependable as ever.  His latest program, "Broken Shadows," (at the Sanctuary Theatre, near Harvard Square, through October 30) offers another tasty course of his specialty: that exquisite cross between modern dance and ballet which Balanchine brought to its highest pitch - and which has begun to fall from favor among the new generation of choreographers.  But if the dance world has moved on from the style, Mateo still remains a true believer; and he has carved out, over the past few decades, a personal artistic niche with a body of work that preserves and personalizes the Balanchine tradition.

Now as Hub Review readers are aware, I'm a huge Balanchine fan - to me, he's the Shakespeare of dance; no other choreographic talent, however great, even comes close.  So the fact that Mateo moves and intrigues me counts for a lot.  He clearly operates in the shadow of Mr. B., but Mateo's a little warmer, a little broader, a little more sensual; if Balanchine sometimes seemed to torture the dancer's body from a cool distance, Mateo always seems to hold that body close.  He's a formalist of a kind - certainly there's an intellectual structure to what he does; but in his heart, you can tell Mateo is basically a fan of old-fashioned balletic passion.

Thus most of his dances (and pretty much all of "Broken Shadows") revolved around frustrated love and heartbreak - the stuff of story ballet, only shifted into vaguely modernist modes and keys.  This made the program feel a bit repetitive, true, but also kind of satisfying; watching the three works on offer, Circles, Isle of the Dead, and Sound Secrets, was a bit like having your favorite dish three times in a row (perhaps with different sauces).  The whole thing was delicious, even if by the end you were ready for something new.

Arnold Böcklin's famous Isle of the Dead (Third Version), the inspiration for Rachmaninov's tone poem.
Of the three pieces, Isle of the Dead (the oldest, from 1992, set to Rachmaninov's famous score) was clearly the strongest, and showcased Mateo's talent for evocative grouping of the corps (at top), which here conjured a kind of communal life-in-death as well as a literal, wave-washed funerary isle.  It also featured what was probably the best dancing of the evening, from Madeleine Bonn, who seemed to portray a wayward soul not yet ready to take her place among the monuments; she and her committed, attentive partner, Jacob Louis Hoover, sailed through an exquisite pas de deux, and generally stirred things up in the mortuary to absorbing effect.

Meanwhile, in Circles (set to a remarkable score by Alfred Schnittke), the striking Sybil Geddes embodied a similar role (the tormented female protagonist is a staple of Mateo's oeuvre) - only this time around, it seemed she was fighting against her own internal despair and frustration, stirred by an inconstant lover (the electric Shane Tice).  Or was her own instability to blame for her inability to connect?  Mateo seemed to hint at this by having his heroine obsessively trace circles at the beginning and end of the dance - which relied on a similar figure (perhaps a bit too clearly) throughout its development. Geddes' performance was always gripping emotionally - she has eyes you can't forget - but was sometimes a bit unfocused technically; as her seeming rival, Bonn all but danced off with their sequences together.

The final piece on offer, Sound Secrets, was the lightest, and perhaps the least compelling. Set to a fascinating Bartók sonata (as you may have guessed by now, Mateo has exquisite taste in music, even if, alas, it's usually recorded), the choreography seemed to only skitter over the surface of its accompaniment (and formal engagement with its music is one of the central tenets of modern dance). Luckily the piece featured Ange DeWolf, whose moves are smooth (if not cut with utter precision) and is also clearly the best actress in the company; her come-hither attitude and general joie de vivre were a hoot throughout the performance. Alas, her hearty allure didn't seem to set her partner, Mark Kehlet Schou, on choreographic fire. Schou is certainly a hottie, but he didn't push himself too hard here, which confined the dance to the limits of witty diversion.  It's worth noting that the company has a new danseur on board, Ivaylo Alexiev, who had an intriguingly sinous line in his solo work (which was perhaps the most polished of the men in the company), but didn't show much subtlety in his partnering (yet).  Still, with his addition the group edges closer to a male roster which can match its female corps, which I think is key to the full flowering of Mateo's modernist-romantic vision.

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