Levels of Interaction: Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre’s Stolen Hearts

Earlier this month, Cambridge-based Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre showed skill and thoughtfulness in its mixed rep bill Stolen Hearts. While there were some minor structural and choreographic areas in need of further development, the evening’s dancing was captivating, and I found the themes of human connection and interaction to be thought-provoking.

The program featured three ballets, all choreographed by Mateo—the company’s director for three decades, who retires this April after the ballet’s final performances of the season.

Affairs, which premiered last year, opened the night. The ballet follows “one of the three Fates of ancient mythology…[and] unavailingly defies the inevitable outcome of an ill-starred affair,” according to the program notes.

It began with the lighting slowly coming up on a single dancer wearing blue. Magdalena Gyftopoulos moved with focus and intensity. Her execution of quickly shifting diagonal facings was crisp. The movement conveyed a grounding in present reality, yet also a restlessness, a searching. She quickly switched those diagonal facings, and moved somewhat erratically throughout the space.

Madeleine Bonn and Betsy Boxberger, dressed in red, joined Gyftopoulos onstage. Her restlessness seemed to settle with their presence. They connected palms, forming a triangle in relevee attitude, a moment that illustrated their friendship.

They exited as Spencer Doru Keith entered, and a passionate pas de deux with Gyftopoulos followed. She moved as if she defied gravity, especially when Doru Keith partnered her. They melted into each other, their passion translating into movement. It was clear that they fully trusted each other.

Forced-arch pirouettes defied the classical mandate of straight-kneed turns. Elbows and hands ventured from codified port de bras placements. But the dancers’ lines maintained the long and energetic qualities of classical ballet. This is characteristic of the company’s general movement qualities when I’ve seen them perform in the past. Yet, Mateo seemed to have pushed this even further with this work.

An ensemble section followed, with the choreography here more classical. The music picked up speed, and the movement with it, but the dancers remained poised and precise. They shifted formations seamlessly—from lines to circles, and even unexpected shapes such as pentagons.

Bo Brinton entered, and another pas de deux with Gyftopoulos began. With Gyftopoulos having danced sensuously with two different men, it became clear that there was an affair.

The movement was more technical than the previous duet. Lifts seamlessly moved into grand extensions. Their physical relationship felt less trusting and less unified; with the fact of their affair, even if not fully out in the open, the truth could stand between them on an unspoken, tangible level.

Brinton wasn’t as grounded in his movement as Gyftopoulos. But he had a lovely blend of softness and strength to his dancing.

The drama heightened as he left, and Doru Keith’s character returned. He and Gyftopoulos embraced. Brinton then came upon Gyftopoulos and Doru Keith dancing together. The air was heavy with tension. The two dancers in red returned, moving with precision and conviction—representing how friends become involved, both by choice and not by choice, in these situations.

How the dancers in red, Gyftopoulos, and Doru Keith shifted between formations was dynamic and spellbinding. They moved from triangles, to lines, to groups of three in opposition to a solo dancer. I didn’t know where they would venture next, and I wanted to keep my eyes laser-focused on them to find out.

More ensemble sections followed. Clear shapes on stage, combined with the dancers’ conviction, brought a sense of reckoning; at least now the truth was out. No dancer shied away, curled inwards in fear, or conversely exploded with anger. Sharp facings and clean shapes, such as low arabesques and passes, instead brought a sense of facing the hard reality. The motif of three dancers with hands joined in relevee attitude returned, conveying how close bonds can last through such emotional trials.

To end the work, all of the dancers expect Gyftopoulos left the stage—echoing the beginning of the ballet. She looked up and out, as if into the future. I got the sense that she might feel, or come to feel, regret for her transgressions. But, regret or not, she’d have to live with her choices and move forward.

Time Beyond Time, the second work of the night, contained much of the same aesthetics and strong dancing.

Released, in contrast to the first work, opened with a bang—the lights’ glowed bright, with fast music and energetic movement commencing. The dancers’ movement and formations were precise and clean. The high energy didn’t feel chaotic or overwhelming. The ensemble exited and a pas de deux began.

Non-classical lifts, such as when soloist Angie DeWolf’s extended leg traveled through a fan shape as she laid on the back of her partner, Doru Keith, were visually stunning. They both had beautiful epaulement, towards and away from each other. I got a true sense of genuine teamwork and unity. At the same time, there was also tension in some moments, such as when the partners made eye contact from across the stage, one at upstage left and another at downstate right.

They then circled in opposition of each other—she rose in soutenue, while he offered low arabesques with a bent standing knee. When they came together, she moved with a contemporary flavor and flair, sweeping her arm up and over the back of her partner with her front foot in forced-arch.

The overall aesthetic quality took a 180 degree turn when the lighting, by designer Matthew Breton, shifted to a red hue and the music become slower and intensified. Doru Keith sat still, facing offstage, while DeWolf moved slowly. They came together again. DeWolf melted into Doru Keith as he lowered her into a beautiful arabesque.

With the return of brighter lighting and faster music, the ensemble reentered the stage. They moved in lines, and then into separate trio and duet groupings. They finished in a tableau.

I was struck by the beauty of this final moment. At the same time, I was curious about the title: why Released? Was it implying a release from the classical ballet idiom? Or was it implying how they were “released,” free from, a need to attach to others for their own strongest senses of self—at the same time, interacting harmoniously?

In the program notes, Mateo wrote that he sought to “reintroduce the formality of traditional movements, formations and patterns in ways that engage a more modern sensibility.” The ways in which couples, small groups, and the ensembles interacted built this sense—just as Stolen Hearts did overall. Over the next few days, I contemplated how these things have played out in my own life; how I am with myself, in one-on-one relationships, and in larger collectives.

Stolen Hearts runs through March 18 at the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Gary Sloan.  

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