CAMBRIDGE — Just one week before the first performance of José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s season-opening program, “Mysterious Arrangements,” 16 dancers gathered loosely around the soft-spoken Mateo as he talked about the choreography of a brand-new ballet. His quiet explanations competed with the bangs and clangs of construction as technicians worked on the lights and set all around them.
Despite a daunting amount still to be done, Mateo was the calm center of the storm. He and the dancers were focused and intent. “Up to now, we’ve been working with isolated pieces. I want to start to put them together,” he told them. “We need to get some sense of continuity, as much for me as for you.”
The din and chaos were a small price to pay for the luxury of being able to develop and rehearse the new ballet — “Taking Turns,” set to the String Quartet No. 4 of Philip Glass and part of a program that will run Friday through Oct. 28 — in the space in which it will be performed. For most companies, onstage rehearsal time is usually limited. But since 2001, Mateo’s troupe, founded in 1986, has had its home and performance space in one, the sweeping vaulted nave of the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge.
“I love the shape of the space,” Mateo said. “It reminds me of the old raked stages of the European opera house, with the big thrust out into the audience, so we can play with the idea of advancing and receding in space. We can go very close to the audience, then back up very far. I try to exploit that.”
For the program, which also includes Mateo’s “Time Beyond Time” (2005), set to Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” and “Dancers’ Overture” (2001), set to the Overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, the choreographer has designed a neutral set. Simple yet elegant, it features three large panels against the back wall that are separated by two openings angling offstage. “I love the idea of portals,” he said. “These let us enter and exit from the back, not just from the side wings. It gives the audience a different experience than just that persistent lateral movement that can tend to give work a kind of flatness.” A large black scrim covers most of the vaulted back wall, with its giant recess housing massive organ pipes.
Between bouts of hammering, the tone of the room was quiet, almost reverential, befitting a church. But there was the occasional eruption of giggles among small clusters of dancers marking phrases off to the side as the 61-year-old Mateo fine-tuned sequences with one of the soloists. You could almost see the creative wheels turning with a quiet intensity as he paused to reflect, adjust, and embellish, occasionally consulting a much-used legal pad. “I’m trying to read my own writing here,” he confessed with a wry grin.
Mateo’s creative process starts with the music, which he listens to repeatedly and analyzes before coming into the studio armed with “pages and pages and pages of notes.” He said, “Ninety percent of the movement is in my head. But sometimes inspiration takes over, and I’m always happy when that happens. For all my preparation, in the end, a work is definitely collaborative.”
“Sometimes the best stuff comes out of a place of uncertainty,” said dancer Elisabeth Scherer, who began training at Mateo’s school at the age of 15 and is going into her 11th year with the company. “The most rewarding part of being in this company is getting to work with an excellent choreographer and making something from scratch. Then there are a few moments onstage when everything comes together, and it’s almost like something takes over you and you’re totally present in the moment and it takes you to another place.”
But at this moment, Scherer admitted, the work was still rough. “It’s scary and stressful to think of opening in a week with so much to do, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
The movement in “Taking Turns” is trademark Mateo — elegant extensions, arms that flow into unexpected curves and angles, sweeping turns, lines of dancers that crisscross the stage in shifting patterns. While the work’s foundation is resolutely classical, modern touches abound — forced arches, flexed hands, off-center balances. Sybil Geddes, one of Mateo’s favorite soloists over the past 10 years, described his choreography as very physical and challenging, with fast directional changes and weight shifts. “But it can feel very beautiful to dance,” she added, “and he really gives dancers a lot of freedom to interpret.”
While “Taking Turns” does not have a specific narrative, Mateo noted that the new work is about accepting loss. “One of the themes of the ballet is taken from the fact that the music is written as a dedication to someone who died from AIDS,” he said.
That information is one of the last details Mateo gave his dancers; he wanted to ensure that they didn’t inadvertently overdramatize or make that theme too clear. He prefers to cultivate a sense of ambiguity that allows audiences to bring their own experience to the mix. “The opening scene is very explicit about the narrative concept, but you’re not quite sure exactly what it’s about,” he said. “I’m trying to awaken that curiosity in the audience, but in the end, they will have noticed that the majority of the ballet is abstract dance in a classical vocabulary that is not used in a traditional way.”
Mateo has described his style as “new classicism,” and at its core is a profound respect for form and structure, manipulating traditional material to arrive at something new. “When I think of classicism, I think of form, balance, symmetry, harmony,” he said. “But I use the vocabulary in very different terms than, say, Petipa or others in the classical traditional mold. Someone from the late 19th century would have been subject to an entirely different set of social dynamics. Heartbreak in the 21st century doesn’t happen in the same way, and we don’t respond in the same way. When we inhabit the stage, we are real people expressing familiar situations, conditions, relationships that we all recognize from our contemporary lives.”
He described constructing the architecture of a new work, later defining the events that will unfold within. He explained, “It’s the subtleties in the end — a turn of the head, a gesture of the hand, an encounter of two bodies, a confrontation of groups — that gives a work its uniqueness. There isn’t an emphasis on brash innovation. The point is how this is shaped: Does it engage you with any sense of familiarity in some profound place of your being? That’s in the fine-tuning, very much like painting. You do the broad strokes, then you work on the details, and the details make an incredible difference.”