With its pristine formal clarity and brilliant blend of intellectual rigor and ardent lyricism, the music of J. S. Bach long has been a favorite among choreographers. But the busy, rhythmically engaging concerti are one thing, and the more introspective and ruminative unaccompanied suites something else entirely. It takes a brave choreographer to create a dance to one of these rich, nuanced masterpieces.
However, José Mateo rarely seems to shrink from a musical challenge, and he opens his company’s 28th season with a program featuring the world premiere of “Vanished Verses,” set to the music of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major. The ballet suggests little narrative save the interplay of fleeting relationships, and the work is most successful when the solo voice of the cello is not clouded by the busyness of too many bodies onstage. Elisabeth Scherer’s measured solo to open the Allemande is especially lovely, and it expands to a gracious, almost languid give-and-take in her duet with Spencer Doru Keith. Magdalena Gyftopoulos catches the spritely energy of the Courante in her flirtation with Jean Robens Georges, her sharp pirouettes and crisp footwork leaving him literally floored at one point. Joanna Binney and David Dubois tap into the springy lightness of the two gavottes, but while her steps and turns are clean and precise, Dubois’s balances and spins often seem to teeter on the edge of imbalance.
The larger sections of “Vanished Verses” don’t fare as well. The risk in choreographing to music with Bach’s exacting rhythmic impulse is that it casts irregularities of timing in sharp relief, and the company’s corps was lax. However, Mateo frankly admits in the program notes that the new work “miraculously emerged from barely two weeks of rehearsals,” so hopefully this new ballet will polish well with time. It has promise.
The program as a whole, called “Shadows Fleeting,” was created to showcase Mateo’s darker side and featured two other works the veteran choreographer says he conceived as experiments to expand the musical breadth of his company. “Dark Profiles” (2001), set to one of Beethoven’s most radical compositions, the thorny and tempestuous Grosse Fuge, aims high. Madeleine Bonn’s opening solo, with its stark, angular shapes, beautifully rides the fevered outbursts and grand pauses of the music’s opening. Supple yet articulate, with a fluid sense of breath and timing, she is commanding yet lyrical, ably partnered by Ivaylo Alexiev. He dances with calm assurance, his flickering entrechats like scissor snips, buoyant leaps landing softly. But as Beethoven’s roiling double fugue for string quartet gathers textural depth and momentum, the movement can’t quite keep up. It’s a little too polite. And the corps of seven women look simply unsettled, rather than urgent.
The program also included “Covens” (2006), set to Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 3. The ballet seems to loosely portray a young innocent (a poised and articulate Kristy Anne Dubois) thrust into the fevered paranoia of a cult. The opening suggests the burgeoning of young love between Dubois and her real-life husband, David Dubois. Carefully partnered poses blossom into sweeping lifts and turns. But the tone quickly turns ominous, as Scherer emerges and beckons others onstage in a flurry of entrances and exits. The romantic duet gradually succumbs to the chaos of the community, with lifts flipping upside down, feet and hands flexed in sharp angles.
There is a lot of running in circles. I’d love to see Mateo give more care to the connective tissue of his choreography. He tends to use runs as filler material between phrases and to open up space, even in solos. A more contained focus could open up compelling possibilities for all the spaces in between.