José Mateo Ballet Theatre opens its 28th season with Shadows Fleeting. Performed in the company’s Sanctuary Theatre, the stunningly converted Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square, the program showcases selections of founder and artistic director José Mateo’s last decade of work, including two company classics and the première of his newest ballet, Vanished Verses. While Mr Mateo’s choreography in the three ballets that comprise Shadows Fleeting is firmly rooted in classical technique, he uses loose narrative and themes to form these pieces allowing pure movement to remain the focus.

Dark Profiles © Gary Sloan
Dark Profiles
© Gary Sloan

Opening the program is Dark Profiles, a piece set to Beethoven’s turbulent Grosse Fuge in B flat. Premièred in 2001, this ballet was created in an effort to expand the company’s musical range. The result is an incredibly challenging piece musically and physically, requiring intense focus and stamina on the part of the dancers. Madeleine Bonn and Ivaylo Alexiev lead the cast admirably through the fast-paced angular movements that characterize this ballet.

The beauty of the Sanctuary Theatre lies not only in its architecture but also in the audience’s proximity to the dancers. At a particularly poignant moment in Dark Profiles, there is a rare quiet in the music, Bonn and Alexiev are still, the only movement is the rising and falling of the dancers’ chests, and the only sound is their heavy breathing. This is a moment that can only be appreciated in an intimate space. Though Dark Profiles had a brief narrative theme written in the program, it did not come through for me in the performance.

Covens, choreographed in 2006, is easily the most dramatic of the three ballets. Set to James MacMillan’s dark and ethereal Symphony no. 3, this ballet is meant to conjure haunting images of love and deception during the hysteria of a witch-hunt. Mr Mateo’s choreography is more organic in this piece, and husband and wife dancers Kristy Anne DuBois and David DuBois execute demanding partnering work with many overhead lifts and rapid turns. The company plays a larger role in this ballet, with three male dancers interrupting the opening pas de deux with large, masculine and threatening movements, and later, the women walk with synchronized steps across the back of the stage gazing menacingly at Ms DuBois as she flutters around in front. The desired atmosphere of anxiety and fear is certainly achieved and in a climactic moment, Ms DuBois is hoisted overhead in a dramatic crucifixion-like lift with the entire company cascaded around her.

Closing out the program is Vanished Verses, a lively ballet choreographed in just two short weeks in collaboration with the company. Of the three pieces, Vanished Verses felt the most cohesive, which, completed 12 years after the program’s opening piece, is perhaps a testament to Mr Mateo’s evolving choreographic style. Bach’s Cello Suite in D major sets the tone for this ballet that is split into six parts with two full company sections and four duets ranging from moments of beautiful solemnity to flirty playfulness. Elisabeth Scherer and Spencer Doru Keith performed a technically strong and emotive pas de deux against the melancholy of the second movement of the suite, which was immediately followed by Magdalena Gyftopoulos playing a quick-footed game of hard-to-get with Jean Robens Georges. The ballet’s finale brings the full company to the stage in sweeping formation changes and a final group pose all rather reminiscent of a Balanchine finale.

Shadows Fleeting seemed a demanding program for the small company and in such an intimate space it’s difficult to mask fatigue and some mistimed steps in corps work. However, the benefits of close proximity far outweigh the negatives and I left, as a first-time attendee of a Mateo production, feeling as though I had a great understanding of the company as a whole and the dancers as individuals.