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.
Mateo has a knack for arresting images. At one stage, a line of eight women traverse the back of the stage in slow motion, on pointe. And when Rachmaninoff makes reference to the plainsong “Dies irae,” Mateo has two women stand in fourth position with their backs to the men who are lying at their feet. By the end, though, the rowing rhythm has merged with the “Dies irae” motif, and the dancers are back in their spotlights, not standing, as they were at the beginning, but grounded, as if in prayer.
Silent Currents: “Isle of the Dead,” “Circles,” and “Risk of Repetition.”
“Circles” (2010) is set to the Schnittke piano concerto, and at the beginning, after she has risen from the plinth of the column at the back of the stage, Sybil Geddes and Rick Vigo do circle each other warily before being menaced by Bonn. The Schnittke is a knotty, dissonant, single-movement affair in which child-simple arpeggios and snatches of Russian Orthodox chant are submerged in motoric rhythms and what sounds like a full-out artillery attack. Geddes, in a gray dress, is the focal point, and she has an extended duet with Vigo in which she stands in back attitude on pointe and he turns her in a complete circle first in one direction and then in the other. But theirs is an uneasy relationship: They keep slipping away from each other, and Bonn, in a red dress, keeps accosting them, as if she wanted Vigo for herself. Geddes and Vigo circle each other once more, Vigo exits at the back, Geddes is left alone in a spotlight, and as the music thins out Bonn appears behind her, one last time.
“Risk of Repetition” (2012) is a not so sly reference to the way Glass compositions hover and oscillate and, well, repeat themselves. Mateo translates the violin concerto into an ostinato-like succession of piqué and chaîné turns, more circles. His dancers aren’t really quick enough to convey the nervous energy of Glass’s pulsing, but his choreography always counterpoints the music rather than merely illustrating it. Angie DeWolf and Willie Moore Jr. lead the first movement, Moore throwing in some powerful double tours; in the slow second movement, they give way to Joanna Binney and Keith. The exuberance of the finale is cut short when everyone, including DeWolf, turns on Moore and he backs off. Binney and Keith have the last word in the slow, stratospheric coda, and as ecstatic as she is in his arms, her upward glance suggests she’s found her real partner in the pattern of the music.