Theater & art

Dance Review

Sleek steps from José Mateo Ballet Theatre

Elisabeth Scherer in José Mateo’s “Fearless Symmetries.”
Gary Sloan
Elisabeth Scherer in José Mateo’s “Fearless Symmetries.”

CAMBRIDGE — With its current program, “In the Mind’s Eye,” José Mateo Ballet Theatre presents two of Mateo’s sleekest, most contemporary ballets, created just one year apart. It can’t be a coincidence that both are driven by the repetitive rhythms of music by minimalist icons (Terry Riley and John Adams). Both ballets are relatively abstract, moving large ensemble groups through eye-catching patterns, with just a hint of fragmented stories and fleeting relationships emerging.

Riley’s colorful “The Cusp of Magic” for string quartet and pipa sets the tone for Mateo’s 2009 “Streams.” This 2007 score is a far cry from the composer’s early, more propulsive music and weaves a gentler magic, incorporating references from a variety of traditions, including Chinese, Northern Indian, and American jazz and blues. And Mateo, while never fully letting go of the classical ballet vocabulary, responds with movement that twists familiar steps slightly out of shape, adding weight here, subverting line there. Poses coil and cant, taking balance off axis, and directions shift in a heartbeat.

The work opens with a joyous burst of leaps, turns, and playful skips that skitter forward, with dancers’ arms outstretched, heads tucked. Mark Kehlet Schou bounds through buoyant spiraling leaps and robust pirouettes. After a duet of tensile stretches, extensions, and lunges by Susan Ashton Bourque and Ivaylo Alexiev, the full company reenters. They process in vivid, carefully orchestrated patterns that shift and glide, illuminated by Stoney Cook’s gorgeous dappled light design. I wish Mateo had settled into this section longer before dissolving the group, leaving a bare stage for Elisabeth Scherer. Her push-pull duet with Spencer Doru Keith is a play of advances and withdrawals, connections and separations.


The drumbeat of the final movement sets up a slightly tribal feel for some of Mateo’s most visceral choreography for the men. Athletic jumps give into the floor with the weightiness of modern dance. Scherer’s solo contrasts mincing footwork with long-lined poses that stop on a dime and suspend on a held breath. The buildup to the final tableau as the dancers enter and amass into formations pulls it all together.

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Mateo transforms John Adams’s “Fearful Symmetries” into his own “Fearless Symmetries” (2008). The ballet’s underlying scenario loosely suggests a young girl (Magdalena Gyftopolous) thrust into the heady excitement of urban life, gradually succumbing to its chaos and social pressures. She is the innocent amidst the sassy swagger of the ensemble, with their tilted pelvis slides and shimmying shoulders. Adams’s percolating rhythms evoke a fast-paced cityscape, with brass chords blaring like rude car horns. One musical climax unleashes a fabulous trio of women who slice their way onstage in unison split leaps and razor sharp kicks. Scherer seems to represent the older, wiser denizen, her solos softer, more full-bodied, often playing against the music’s churning pulse.

Toward the end, the crowds seem to have overwhelmed Gyftopolous’s naïf. She melts to the floor, arising for a trancelike solo. Spinning listlessly, head tilted sideways, her demeanor suggests it has all been a bit too much.

“In the Mind’s Eye” is a short, punchy, satisfying program, but it’s quite the technical and aerobic workout for the dancers. While most of the solo and duet work Saturday night was solid, many of the ensemble sections were marred by sloppy timing and inattention to detail. And by evening’s end, many in the cast looked visibly tired, perhaps as ready to sink into the floor as Gyftopolous’s ingénue.

Karen Campbell can be reached at