If time travel really existed, one of the most intriguing prospects would be the opportunity to connect with one’s childhood self. Jorma Elo’s new “Awake Only,” the centerpiece of Boston Ballet’s “Fall Program” of three contemporary ballets, taps into that from the opening curtain, which appears to arise at the flourish of a small pajama-clad boy (adorable Boston Ballet School student Liam Lurker). He seems to represent central figure Jeffrey Cirio as a child, sparking him to remember and reflect. Though there’s no clear storyline, “Awake Only” pulses to an undercurrent of narrative as one man examines his life — past, present, and future.
Set to keyboard arrangements of music by J.S. Bach, performed live by pianist Alex Foaksman and organist Heinrich Christensen, “Awake Only” is Elo’s tenth world premiere for Boston Ballet. It’s also perhaps his least abstract, and his familiarity with who the company’s dancers are and what they can do is evident, especially in the small group choreography. He continues to push the boundaries of difficulty and speed, with elegant lines subverted by quirky gestures and rapid shifts of weight.
Sometimes the gestures seem forced and contrived, gratuitously odd. Other times they are poignantly freighted with meaning. Hands creating a frame shift close to the face, then back away, as if a lens is being adjusted. A palm fluttering back and forth suggests the turning of a page, the passing of time.
Some of Elo’s most effective choreography comes when the pace slows, in duets and trios that recall lost connections or new discoveries. Despite one backwards tumble during an awkward passage, Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga are technically excellent and dramatically touching as the parents. However, Jeffrey Cirio is nothing less than brilliant. He not only spins out dazzling leaps and sinuous coils atop fleet footwork, he conveys the transformation from child to old man in the blink of an eye. His most powerful work comes with Kathleen Breen Combes, who emerges from a kind of Greek chorus of women to become his character’s love interest. Their intricate partnering is full of slow, tentative couplings that melt into liquid embraces and moments of stillness. Midway through the piece, the two spiral breathlessly to the floor. At work’s end, he simply sinks lifelessly from her arms. When the little boy kneels to cradle his head, it’s enough to break your heart.
The reprise of British choreographer Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” made a light-hearted, crowd-pleasing opener. Given its Boston Ballet debut just last spring, this 1991 this work for five couples is set to some of The Rolling Stones’ most iconic hits. It loosely suggests that all men are animals — well, roosters, to be precise, preening and posturing through the barnyard of courtship.
Melding ballet with jazz, jive, popular dance styles, even a little go-go, it’s fun and entertaining, and Boston Ballet’s versatile dancers gave it a sharp, spirited performance, especially in the solos. Robert Kretz’s leadoff in “Little Red Rooster” was a winning portrait of a sly bird on the prowl, playfully strutting about the stage, arms folded wing-like, head bobbing and jerking, turning the adjustment of his tie into a peck. Irlan Silva displayed crisp footwork and dynamic leaps in “Paint It Black,” and Whitney Jensen, in a flowing red dress, embodied the mercurial “Ruby Tuesday” with sweeping spins and fluttery jumps, including a startling dive into the arms of four men, who toss her spinning into the air.
The company also looked outstanding in William Forsythe’s starkly edgy and striking “The Second Detail.” They veered from saucy pedestrian swaggers into off-kilter explosive outbursts one moment, cool extensions and stretches the next. Set to a raucous percussive score by Thom Willems that occasionally suggests a very cranky Stravinksy, it is an overly long but masterful puzzler you simply can’t take your eyes off of.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified a song to which Irlan Silva dances a solo in the ballet “Rooster.” It is “Paint It Black.” In addition, the dancer in the center of a photograph was misidentified in the caption. She is Corina Gill.