CAMBRIDGE — The title of José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s first spring repertory program, “Silent Currents,” may suggest dance’s promise of wordless communication via the body, but it does a disservice to Mateo’s gift for finding music that speaks. This time out, he chose Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead,” Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings, and Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 1. It’s not always easy music to dance to: The Rachmaninoff starts off in 5/8, and the Schnittke’s shifting time signatures include 5/4. But on Friday evening at the Sanctuary Theatre, his company managed nicely.
The last time I saw Mateo’s “Isle of the Dead,” it was on the Cutler Majestic Theatre stage in 1993. The Rachmaninoff tone poem that inspired this ballet was itself inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting of the same name, a work that shows Hades ferryman Charon steering a boat toward a cypress-shrouded island. Mateo begins with 12 dancers — nine women, three men — in individual spotlights, as if those were their assigned spots in the boat. They break out, challenging Rachmaninoff’s 5/8 rowing rhythm, and three of the women form couples with the men to the lush decadence of the composer’s strings. Eventually Madeleine Bonn and Spencer Doru Keith embark on a steamy duet; it’s hard to tell whether, in the life they’re leaving, they had too much sex or not enough.