CAMBRIDGE — What’s in a title? José Mateo Ballet Theatre is opening its 2012-13 season with “Mysterious Arrangements.” Mateo in his program note says the phrase refers “to the intriguing, ever-changing choreographic positionings of the performers,” as well as to “the complex relationships that the dancers’ physical interactions describe.” He could, of course, be talking about any choreography, from Merce Cunningham to George Balanchine. At the Sanctuary Theatre Sunday afternoon, Mateo ran closer to Balanchine, in three works that ranged from mysterious to mystifying.
One performance aspect in which Mateo keeps you off balance is costuming. In the opening piece, his 2005 “Time Beyond Time,” most of the women wear gray or mauve leotards, but two of them have red leotards of a different cut, and it’s not because they’re featured dancers. And whereas the men’s costume is basic black, the lead man sports brown bicycle shorts.
“Time Beyond Time” is set to movements 6, 5, 7, and 8 of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”), which premiered in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941. Messiaen took as his inspiration the passage from Revelation in which an angel announces the end of time. Mateo seems to have in mind a couple from different eras who try to connect with each other. They emerge from a first section in which the women, whose numbers dominate, echo some of the spiky movement of Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments.” Sunday the couple were Madeleine Bonn and Jacob Louis Hoover. In the second section, he kept turning her on pointe, in front attitude, in back, and there were many well-executed upside-down lifts. She strode away from him; he looked yearningly after her, then exited; she came back too late.
At the outset of the slow final section, Bonn walked enigmatically through eight women lying on the floor; eventually one of the two women in red rose and held her hand to Bonn’s cheek. The section resolved into another duet for Bonn and Hoover, with more lifts. Even when at last they embraced, they continued to turn, time after time. At the end, she fell to the floor in his arms — but does time have an end?
“Dancers’ Overture” (2003) is an eight-minute work set to the Overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2. Here the women wear black leotards under short pleated skirts and the men gray unitards. Bonn and Mark Kehlet Schou were the soloists, but the star of the piece is Mateo’s patterning, which illuminates Bach’s writing rather then simply reflecting it. In the faster fugal central section, one of the men made reference to August Bournonville in his port de bras; when the slow section returned, the procession of women might have been part of a Greek frieze.
The premiere on the bill, Mateo’s “Taking Turns,” is set to Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 4 (1989), which was commissioned in memory of an artist, Brian Buczak, who died of AIDS. “Taking Turns” begins with a man being dragged out by two other men and ends with one of the solo women — Elisabeth Scherer at Sunday’s performance — laying a bouquet of white chrysanthemums on the floor. Most eye-catching was the second movement, which begins with three women momentarily positioning themselves like the Graces in Botticelli’s “Primavera” before a man comes on and dances with the central one. Sunday the couple were Spencer Doru Keith and Sybil Geddes, man and goddess. She eluded him, pushed him to the floor; then the other two women returned and the trio circled him in a fading light as the movement ended. A mysterious arrangement indeed.