Ballet review: Jose Mateo's season opener a change of pace

Iris Fanger

Jose Mateo, a choreographer known for creating works that combine classical music and ballet technique, chose two contemporary pieces of music with differing moods for the program that opens the season.

"Presage,'' set to the music of Polish-born composer Henryk Gorecki’s 1976 "Symphony # 3,'' is a somber work, starting with deep cello chords that establish the tone of tragedy to come, continuing by adding a soprano solo of a 15th century lament of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

In contrast, "Fearless Symmetries,'' set to the 1988 score "Fearful Symmetries'' by American John Adams, begins with a bounce and a suggestion that the temperature on the city streets is hot, hot, hot.

"Presage,'' created by Mateo in 2005, begins when a young man embraces and leaves his mother alone in a cave-like structure at the rear of the deep stage of the Sanctuary Theatre in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, the company’s and ballet school’s home. Mateo also operates a second school at South Shore Conservatory’s Ellison Center for the Arts in Duxbury.

It’s not until the final stage picture of "Presage''– the grieving woman holding the body of her son in pieta-like pose– that we understand Mateo’s central image because Sybil Watkins as the mother looks too young for the role. She’s a gracious, lovely dancer with a lift to her body, carrying herself straight and tall throughout her movements. It also doesn’t help that she’s dressed in a white leotard, with no suggestion of other costume pieces to establish her character. Watkins always dances alone, apart from the members of the corps de ballet who enter and exit, generally in unison phrases. The proficient Desiree Reese, at first a member of the group, separates herself to become the young man, Henoch Spinola’s partner. Later, she pays homage to Watkins in their brief duet.

Although the movement devised by Mateo for "Presage'' is classroom stuff, without challenging this young company beyond its capabilities, there are some memorable phrases. Spinola is confident in multiple lifts when he raises Reese, echoed by five other men and their partners. In another scene, the men put Spinola high in the air in the image of a cross, certainly a clue to the ending but easy to miss because it takes place far upstage.

In the change of pace "Fearless Symmetries,'' Mateo has found a new voice that might be a break-through for him. He seems to like Adams’ more playful rhythms, and makes choreography that joins the sass of jutting hips and shimmying shoulders with a strut-like walk by the corps de ballet as he seeks to invert the traditional ballet steps. Mateo is as masterful at manipulating the large troupe in quick comings and goings, as he is in choreographing strong duets for Kehlet Schou and Jenna Nagle, along with Elizabeth Scherer cast as the leads. Schou, a compact dynamo of a dancer, steals the show with the virtuosic linked circle turns of his solo and his determined changes of direction. When the music turns darker, Mateo transforms the corps into a troupe of Furies, as if to suggest that the good times will not last. Mateo has embraced Adams’ complex score with verve and imagination, to latch onto some juicy ideas that are new to him.

For "Fearless Symmetries,'' the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre has fielded 23 dancers, including seven apprentices. Hingham’s Jackie Sanford, who danced the role of Clara in Mateo’s production of "The Nutcracker'' some years back, makes her professional debut this fall as one of the apprentices.

The Patriot Ledger