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José Mateo’s ‘Undercurrents’

The idea of José Mateo’s Ballet Theatre is to present classical-ballet performances in a non-threatening atmosphere. Civilians with nothing but a dim suspicion of this high art will, one presumes, relax and see how approachable and even relevant it can be. The company’s convertible home in the beautiful Sanctuary space at Cambridge Baptist Church can be set up with little café tables. You can buy a drink and even consume it during the performance. A solo flute warbles Debussy in the intervals.

For Mateo’s fall presentation (which runs through October 26), the program notes encourage us to look for social "Undercurrents" within the seemingly abstract patterns of the choreography. This is a truism for all dance lovers — structured movement is never without a meaning. A man and a woman dancing together are either equals or differing souls; if a second woman appeared, the balance between the man and the first woman would shift. What a man and a woman do when they move is more than esoteric steps; they’re also leading and following, accommodating, opposing, touching, supporting, separating. Choreographic narrative is embedded in the way the steps are put together, and the way the steps relate to the music.

In Mateo’s new Suspect of Passion, our attention is gradually drawn to the man and two women who emerge as principals from a group of six other men and women. The music is Robert Schumann’s E-flat Piano Quintet (the same music Mark Morris used for his V), and its varying romantic moods help establish dramatic possibilities for the trio.

Costumes give our reading another assist. The leading man (Parren Ballard) wears the same plain black dancewear as his three companions, plus a blue printed vest. There are various dances for the four men, with four women who are identically dressed in silky, knee-length, high-waisted skirts and scanty black tops. Another woman (Elizabeth Scherban Shinazawa) arrives in the second movement, wearing a decorated red unitard.

Shinazawa and Ballard dance together. He seems to lose her; then, after they dance back to back, he lowers her to the floor as if she’d died and calmly walks away. But soon she revives. Instead of having an ecstatic reunion, they leap and run in different parts of the stage. After all this, an unnamed woman detaches herself from the group and the hero shows an interest in her. Shinazawa seems to invite his embrace, but then she pushes him away. At the end of the fugue section, he streaks out and she looks dejected. The other woman rejoins her companions.

But there’s more dancing to come, until everyone has reassembled and the piece can end on an unresolved pose, with Shinazawa standing center, the delegate from the corps eyeing her from upstage, and Ballard, at the other end of the diagonal, gazing off into the distance. Maybe it’s all a gloss on La Sylphide. Or maybe I’m dipping into the wrong undercurrent.

This ballet, along Mateo’s other two pieces on the program, Courtly Lovers and The Last Circus, has lots of dancing in it along with its enigmatic story line. Perhaps the newcomers in the audience think this is what ballet ought to look like and are willing to work out the mysteries for themselves. But for me, the evening’s classical pretext wore the veil of a school recital.

Although the movement vocabulary is quite basic and repetitive, the stage seems crowded. Small groups of dancers wearing ill-matched sets of costumes cross and recross the space in what could be random counterpoint patterns. It’s a way of keeping the movement simple but giving lots of people stage experience. As the dancers replay scenes that evoke situations in ballet literature, like the flirtatious behavior of the elusive Sylphide or (in The Last Circus) the girl abandoned on the floor à la Serenade, you get clues about their relationships, but the situations don’t play out as expected. They don’t play out at all.

Ballet Theatre’s training and discipline are evident in the dancers’ good manners — and in their apparent anxiety about performing. With a couple of exceptions, even the leading dancers look too preoccupied with getting through the technique to project character or hold onto a narrative connection. Mateo takes on musical giants for his accompaniments, but the dancers don’t yield to the music’s dynamic pressures or play up its expressive opportunities. Whether Haydn is launching surprises or Stravinsky is romping to a wind-up with dissonant bravado, they look just as bland and proper.

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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